May 16, 2007

Heaven Can Wait?

2007 1514 page22 capAVE YOU EVER HAD THE KIND OF DAY IN WHICH THE birds are singing, the flowers are blooming, you’ve got a spring in your step, and all is right with the world? I love those days!
I tend to be a happy girl. A Baskin-Robbins run with friends can leave me feeling cheerful. So can a shopping trip, a gabfest, a bright cloudless sky, an intense workout, a rewarding day of teaching, a good book. The list is limitless, because life can be very, very good. Tantalizingly good.
I think of lying on a white beach in Thailand—blue water, lazy coconut trees, fellow student missionaries splashing in the ocean. I think of Friday nights at home, surrounded by family, eating cinnamon rolls just out of the oven. I think of building a snowman in Iowa, dressing him up in an Atlanta Braves T-shirt—later drinking herbal tea and sharing stories with friends. I think of picking wild blueberries in Finland, mingling with dark-green fir trees and muted birches. Feeling so at ease in this, my mother’s homeland. Yes, sometimes life can be good. Sometimes life can be tenuous, however.
Want Jesus to Come, But . . .
I remember sitting in Motel Six. I was 10 and on a family vacation. We had just driven for nine hours. The last, I had spent in stony silence, staring out the car window, willing someone to notice. No one did. Now I was sharing a saggy bed with my older sister, the same sister who had demanded that I stay on my half of the back seat.
2007 1514 page22Grumpy, I lay in front of the TV, propped up on my elbows. My father had found the nature channel. The show was about the environment. With alarming clarity, the producers detailed the coming destruction of the rain forests, the depletion of the ozone layer, the polluting of the oceans, the threat of global warming. I lay on the faded quilt, my irritation turning to horror. For the first time in my life, I realized that earth was careening toward self-destruction.
I knew the world would eventually end. I knew about the Second Coming. In fact, when I was little I had waited expectantly for it. I remember rushing outside on Sabbath afternoons looking at clouds. I would twirl about, shielding my eyes with pudgy hands. Sometimes I would find what I thought was the cloud—the one that would explode into light and angels’ wings and joyful trumpet sounds. It would be miles above me, soft and just the right size. I would sit on our stoop and wait to see if it got bigger. When it melted into wisps, I would turn and look for another cloud and another.
I’m not sure when I stopped expecting Jesus to return that week. But now my blood turned cold as I contemplated the imminent destruction of the world. Jesus would have to come if all the icebergs melted. Surely. But my heart didn’t quicken with anticipation. Instead, I thought of my dog. Do pets go to heaven? I thought of my birthday that was coming up in a couple of weeks. What wonderful delights were in store for me? I wanted Jesus to come for me. I wanted to go to heaven. But couldn’t it all wait until I was older? After all, I needed time to read my new book.
I’m older now, old enough to know better. But to be honest, some days I feel so incredibly happy that I would love to live to be 101. It’s not that I’ve lived a blissful life free from pain. Hardly so. But there is still so much I’d like to do. I would love to get married, visit Nepal and see a yak in the wild, write a book, have children, grow tomatoes, basil, hot peppers. I want Jesus to come, but don’t rush Him.
Then, There’s the Ugly Present
Today, I’m walking in the subway. I take long strides. My arms swing comfortably at my sides. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a tiny man. He is folded into himself; his brown outfit seems to swallow him. But what breaks my heart is the way he is walking. He is mincing. Each foot goes out one inch. He’s going as fast as he can, apparently in a hurry. But he hardly moves at all. My heart tweaks all the way home.
Later, I get on the Internet and visit the Newsweek Web site. There is an article about child soldiers. I click on it, my mind fast-forwarding to all the things I need to do that evening. I’m stopped by a picture of four teenage boys from an African country. They sit in front of a grimy cement wall. They are lanky adolescents. Two lean against the wall like tough guys, but their baby faces belie their expression. One wears a soccer T-shirt and looks ready for a game. The fourth smiles into the camera—all innocence.
2007 1514 page22I start reading the story and grow numb with disbelief. These boys were kidnapped from their families when they were 8 and 9 years old. Some watched in terror as their parents were shot. Then, according to the story, they were forced to join a rebel group that was then fighting against the government.
One boy talked about his first murder. Another described the heroin and cocaine that he was forced to take before a mission. They talked about gang-raping women. They talked of killing the innocent. They talked about how the drugs made them feel both powerful and scared. One boy described how he was forced to do amputations at a pro-government village. Other boys lined up the villagers and asked them if they wanted a short arm or a long arm. Then he would cut off the villager’s hand either at the wrist or the elbow.
I want to cry. To think that there was a day when an entire village was lined up and they had to make a choice like that. I imagine myself in line, drenched in cold sweat, my head spinning. The air smells of the blood of my friends, my family. There’s nowhere to go. Nowhere to run. I will be next. And quickly I have to choose my own torment. How unspeakable. And how much more unspeakable that the one cutting the hands was this baby-faced child.
The war is now over in that country. The four boys go to elementary school. They want to be teachers and doctors. They want to undo some of the pain they were forced to participate in. Their teachers say they are excellent students, diligent and bright. Still, they are haunted by the past. In the interview with Newsweek one of the boys said, “I dream about what happened. Sometimes I feel scared, because I’ve killed, I’ve drunk blood, I’ve smoked jambaa [marijuana]—I worry that these things will take over, that they’ll lead me to do bad things again.”*
Seeing Things Differently
Oh, what a sheltered life I have led! I’ve never known war, never known violence, never been given so many reasons to hate myself. Living a peaceful life doesn’t make me a bad person, but it has colored my perceptions. I greet a new day with curiosity, enthusiasm. It is only natural. I have opportunities that others only dream about. Within reason, I can go anywhere—do anything. For me, life has not only been bearable; sometimes it’s been downright fabulous. I guess that’s why I sometimes think I wouldn’t mind if heaven waited—just a bit.
I guess it is human nature to prefer the known over the unknown, especially if the known is mostly pleasant. But this world as a whole is not a pleasant place. Most of us have adjusted to that. We have learned to shake our heads and then move on when we hear about a plane crash in China, an earthquake in Afghanistan, AIDS in South Africa, tornado in Texas, civil war in Sri Lanka. There is too much death and destruction. It’s numbing, and so it is easy to keep going. It’s easy for me to keep going.
2007 1514 page22I don’t suppose it would be healthy for me to agonize over each tragedy that washes over the earth. But I think I can learn two lessons:
1. Heaven can’t wait. I know God’s timing is flawless, but I’d rather wait impatiently for His return. To be honest, eternity still scares me. The unknown scares me. Leaving this planet still scares me, but the pain in this world scares me a lot more. For too many, the pain is raw, searing. The sooner Christ returns the better.
2. I have been given an amazing gift. I was born in a Christian home with a multitude of opportunities. God gave me this gift—as in the parable of the talents—to use for the good of others, not to hide behind. God has opened my eyes to the world’s enormous pain. Now it is my responsibility to use my life to make someone else’s a bit better. I’m not sure how to do this. But I feel certain that we who are so blessed are responsible for helping others. We must recognize how lucky we are and give more, help more, love more. And those blissful happy days when the birds are singing, flowers are blooming, and all is right with the world?
I think they are just a tiny taste of heaven, a taste I’d like to share with everyone for eternity.
*“Voices of the Children: ‘We Beat and Killed People . . .’” by Tom Masland., May 10, 2002,
Sari Fordham is currently working on a postgraduate degree at the University of Minnesota. Her e-mail address is [email protected].