When I was a child, my vision of heaven was riddled with roller coasters and populated by Disney characters. Let me explain.
Growing up in Puerto Rico, the American “mainland” to our north was for me a dreamland of sorts. You could catch a glimpse of it on television show depicting Main Streets lined with impressive trees. And of course, there was Disney World. As a five-year old visiting Florida for the first time, I imagined that the rest of the country was just like that particular corner of Orlando that we tourists saw.
That was heaven on earth for the five-year-old version of me. Heaven was earthly and joyful and fun and sweet. But as we all know Disney is no paradise. I don’t expect long lines, lots of sweat, and expensive but mediocre food in heaven.
When I was five, Disney was my vision of heaven. As I grew up in the church, my vision turned upward. Heaven was an eternal destination deferred until the moment after you die. Heaven was a place of reward and eternity. Heaven was an ethereal experience, something so otherworldly that the best we could do was speak in metaphors and images about it. Heaven, in short, had very little to do with the world as we knew it.
Neither vision gets it quite right.
The diagnoses are grim. Fervent supporters and ardent critics of religion both point to your decline. An urgency, if not an all-out alarm, fills the air. There are those who hope beyond hope for your renewal and transformation. Others stand steadfastly by your side as they "wait and see." Still others wipe their hands of the whole ugly mess and leave you to your ever-more-inevitable demise.
I'm not sure what to do. But I know I love you.
I know that you have grown weary in a bewildering, fast-paced world less inclined to pause and listen in. I know you have clung to models of leadership, governance, and programming through which you reached prominence, but now seem sluggish in the world today. I know you have tried new methods and "relevant" techniques for attracting new life, but they did not pan out like you dreamed. I know you have been let down by ministerial leadership, and not just in the pulpit: in the boardroom, in the choir lofts, in the denominational office. In this time of shrinking attendance, recycled ideas, and diminishing resolve, I'm not sure what the magic cure is. Or if there ever was one. But I know I love you.
You left groceries on my family's doorstep when my parents could not make ends meet. You carried the weight of my family's grief when my sister drowned. You encouraged me when I felt so alone and afraid. You challenged me to live beyond myself and for those who are so often ignored. You surrounded me with gentleness and love on my wedding day. You gave me time-worn words and melodies to express the joy and lament of my spirit. You pointed to a holy feast big enough to include all of humanity, and you set a place at that table for me.
You introduced me to God.
I received some distressing news today. Oh, I know you thought you’d kept it secret, but I answered the phone when the doctor’s office called to change your chemo appointment.
Chemo? Seriously? What, you thought I wouldn’t find out eventually? I know I seem preoccupied sometimes, but I’m not an idiot. I can see the signs.
I knew something was up when I saw you shrinking, little by little over time. Maybe other people couldn’t tell, but I suspected something bad was going on. You can paste on a smile, and listen to your happy music, and buy new stuff. But anyone who really knows you, realizes your body has been slowly betraying you.
Dying happens. I get that. What really makes me mad, though, is that you didn’t trust me enough to tell me. Maybe you didn’t know for awhile. I guess that’s possible. But the doctor had to have told you, right? I mean, at some point you decided to do something about it — if only to keep it a secret. And if you didn’t know, then you’re not who I thought you were.
Let me start off this letter by expressing my deep love and appreciation for you. I have been an active participant in the community of faith for about 10 years now, and I have been profoundly blessed, cared for, loved, and inspired to be a better human being through you. I have also seen — and even participated in — some of your ugliest and most unfaithful moments in recent history. But through all of these experiences, nothing but utter appreciation and love remains for you. I believe, in the words of Bill Hybels, that the church is the hope of the world. I believe in your great power and potential to renew and reconcile our broken world through the way of Jesus. I believe that you can do it. That we can do it, together.
With that said, there has been a lot of talk recently about your impending death. For a long time, I believed the hype. I saw the numbers of millennials who were walking away from the churches and both mainline and evangelical churches closing their doors. I was convinced that maybe the church had truly seen the end.
But I was recently reminded that what we have been witnessing in the West is not, in fact, the death of the church at all.