Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Logistics of Heaven

The summer before I entered the fourth grade, my family moved from an urban neighborhood, with all kinds of houses and a shopping street a block away, to a suburban development of post-World War II nearly-identical ticky-tacky houses a mile or so away from…anything. To get to school, I either had to walk along a cornfield, where garter snakes sometimes slithered out from between the rows, or down an overgrown dirt path that bordered some woods, where I was sure unsavory types lurked, just waiting for the perfect victim (me) to come along.

I desperately missed my neighborhood, my school, my library, my friends. Worse, I’d been recognized as one of the best students in my class at my old school, the favored students had been in place since kindergarten. I was nobody.

In time, I made friends with a girl in my class—I’ll call her Cathy. She had shiny brown hair and brown eyes and beautiful olive skin. She lived in a brick house in a real neighborhood not far from our subdivision—a house with a basement, where her mother led our Girl Scout meetings every week. She had her own bedroom, pink, with white, frilly curtains on the windows and stuffed animals piled on her bed. She had nice clothes and her own record player. I adored her.

Every morning, from fourth through seventh grades, I walked to the end of our long block, then down the scary dirt path, turned left, walked to her house and knocked on the back door. Her mom let me in and I’d wait in the kitchen, chatting with her, until Cathy was ready. Then we’d set out for school together. Sometimes I was allowed to stay and play a while after school, or invited to come over on a Saturday.

In the spring of our seventh grade year, Cathy became enamored of a classmate I’ll call Bev, a ferret of a girl, ropy, with thin brown hair and a whole lot of what I now understand was sexual energy. She had breasts and a knowing air. I was still, physically, a child and completely clueless about sex, though I did have an agonizing, secret crush on a boy named Danny. I lived in a perpetual state of mortification. I had no idea how to navigate the dawning world of adolescence.

I still had Cathy to myself every morning, but only because Bev’s house wasn’t on our route. Increasingly, however, she avoided me at school. The two of them endured me at the lunch table; sometimes they invited me to go skating with them on Saturdays or to a sleepover. But I felt more and more awkward when I was with them, more aware that they didn’t really want me along. I invited them both to my birthday party in May, but only Cathy came—and I was pretty sure her mom had made her.

The two of them decided to go to Bev’s church camp that summer—and mentioned, without much enthusiasm, that I might come along. Though I was unhappy at home, I was paranoid about being away from home, especially for a whole week. But it seemed to me that if I didn’t go, it would be the end of my friendship with Cathy. Plus, the boy I liked was going, too, and I thought maybe, maybe he might notice me.

So I signed up, packed a borrowed duffel, and my dad delivered me to the church parking lot, where a school bus waited to take us to camp. Cathy and Bev sat together on the bus; I sat behind them, leaning forward to participate in their conversation as best I could. But soon the motion of the bus began to make me sleepy and a little nauseous. It was hot. Noisy. My head hurt. I leaned back and rested my cheek against the cool glass window, hoping to catch a bit of the breeze coming in from the raised part. I dozed, woke, dozed, woke—each time feeling a little worse. By the time we reached the first rest stop, I knew I was going to throw up—and dashed off the bus and into the smelly bathroom.

The bathroom was crowded when I came out of the stall. Cathy and Bev smiled slyly. They followed me out, teasing, then stopped to join a bunch of kids were congregated around a picnic table. I stood at the edges for a moment, then went on to the bus, where I noticed a folded piece of paper beneath Cathy’s seat—a note that she and Bev had been passing back and forth about all the things they didn’t like about me.

Had they left it there so I would find it?

I leaned against the window again and pretended to be asleep, listening to them talk about me. “P-U,” they said again and again, bursting into peals of laughter. I guess I did finally sleep, because I don’t remember anything else until, finally, we arrived at the camp.

They hurried off the bus, claimed a bunk bed to share—and, from then on, almost completely ignored me. Worse, the boy I liked came up to me about midway through the week, told me he really liked Cathy and asked if I’d try to talk her into liking him, too.

I’d never been that close to him before. He smelled sweaty, like the woods, with maybe a tinge of cigarette smoke. His voice squeaked and deepened as he spoke.

“Sure,” I said. “Yeah. I can do that.”

“Oh,” Cathy said, when I got up the nerve to approach her. “Him. Ugh.” And turned away from me.

We had Bible class every morning, which was at first comforting because it was like school—and school was a place where I knew what to do: be quiet, listen, raise your hand to ask or answer a question. Trouble was, my parents weren’t church people. We never talked about religion at home; I was only vaguely familiar with the Bible stories all the others seemed to know by heart.

I got curious.

Not in the way the camp leaders hoped, however, which would have led to my taking Jesus as my personal savior at the end of the week.

I got curious about how it worked.

As in, “So, were Adam and Eve cave people?”

They were the first people God made, right? And science had proved that the first people on earth were cave people.

It seemed a perfectly reasonable question to me—and a brilliant insight on my part.

It was met with dead silence from the camp leader—and laughter from my fellow campers.

I don’t remember how the leader eventually answered, just that it was in a disapproving tone, as if I had been making a joke. I do remember that I wasn’t stupid enough to ask the second question, the one that interested me the most.

How does heaven work?

Okay, it’s a place where the people you loved and who went before you will greet you at the golden gate and you will all be together forever. But what if you were married and your first husband died and you got married again and really, really loved that person? Which husband would you be with in heaven? And what if you loved someone, but that person didn’t love you and, for sure, didn’t want to be with you through eternity? Or someone loved you and you didn’t love him and didn’t want to be him forever?

Who got to choose?

Funny. It never occurred to me until right now, writing this, that the heaven question was connected to my feelings about Cathy. Or that if anyone had asked me then what heaven would be like for me, I might have said, “Being adopted into Cathy’s family and being best friends with her forever.”

It also hadn’t occurred to me that those unanswerable questions marked an important moment in my understanding of faith. Before they floated into my mind, I believed in God. I believed that good people went to heaven when they died and that, if I were good, I would end up there myself. After they floated into my mind, the whole enterprise began to seem, logistically, very sketchy to me.

Taken to the edge, for example—those basketball players who cross themselves before taking a free throw? Do they really think God is available to help with such things? And if they do, shouldn’t they just take their chances on the free throw so he can concentrate on, say, world peace? Or just feeding a family in the inner city?

It took me years to understand that religious faith is irrational. It’s just there, inside you, as reliable and enduring as the sun. Questions are inevitable—the most common being, “Why?” Some examine their questions about faith more deeply than others. But true faith doesn’t need a logical answer.

Some of the most intelligent people I know are people of faith. I respect and envy them. True faith makes life easier, I think—especially if it ensures a place in heaven.

I am a person of faith myself, just not religious faith. I believe that things happen to us for a reason, that we are meant to cherish the joy we are given and meet life’s challenges with grace and courage. I believe our time on earth matters. I believe heaven is here and now. I believe, for better or worse, we live forever in the bits of ourselves we give to others as we travel our life paths.

I don't discount the possibility of God. But I believe if He/She/It exists, knowing the "logistics" of who He/She/Is it and how He/She/It works is beyond our human capabilities.

Having breast cancer, considering mortality as a result, hasn't changed what I believe at all--which, I guess, is the test of any faith, religious or otherwise.

In any case, I don’t need answers to those logistical questions anymore. I’ve learned that any question worth asking doesn’t have an answer, anyway.


Kathy H-C said...

You always make me think, Barb. We're struggling with questions of faith in our home right now. Ironically, my son who has attended Catholic schools his whole life, is now a self-declared agnostic. Except, it isn't ironic really. At his high school the goal is to get kids to THINK about those questions and choose to have faith despite the fact that we cannot possibly know. For him, the fact that we cannot possibly know makes faith difficult. I love that he cares enough to do the thinking, rather than just accept what others believe or blow off what the teachers say without considering it.

Barbara Shoup said...

Maybe the problem with the approach of thinking about those questions with the goal that they'll choose faith is that we can't really choose. We either have faith or we don't. We can choose to operate as if we believe and hope that, in time, we really will. But we can't choose what we believe. We just believe it.

Good for Christopher for questioning--and being honest about what he believes. Here's hoping he works out faith in something that will sustain him--whatever it is.

CJWilliams said...

As a P.K. (preacher's kid), I have gone through a dizzying gamut of questioning God, faith, and the absence of both. I find that now that both of my parents are gone, I am reliving it all. I think it is hard for us humans to accept that not all questions have answers. In a Q&A with Anna Quindlen in Sunday's Times, she gave an interesting view of her faith-life: "...I grew up Catholic, and it's hard to separate the New Testament from all my aspirations, inspiration and political positions. I am a liberal because of the Sermon on the Mount."