My mom died today. Hip surgery and resulting complications, including a weakened heart, proved too much. She was 90, though she didn’t look her age or necessarily act it. I thought (and was hoping) she would die this past Friday on my sister’s birthday (she died five years ago at the age of 62).
My mom was a reluctant member of a particular community of parents who know the grief of outliving a child. Himself a member of that society, the late William Sloane Coffin, who once preached from the pulpit of The Riverside Church in NYC, observed that when children bury their parent they lose a part of history; when parents bury a child they lose a piece of the future.
In the context of our faith tradition, we talked about many afterlife issues at her bedside. My mom was eager to re-unite with her husband and daughter, as well as her brother and three sisters and her own mom and dad who preceded her in death. She wanted to see again lifelong friends, members of her church, and people from the mobile home park in Florida who died before she did.
“All those heavenly gatherings will be amazing,” she said with anticipation. I agreed. When she confided in me that during a recent night a white-robed Jesus appeared four times, it never occurred to me to explain it away. I took no small comfort in knowing my mom was ready to die, and laughed with her when she said with unguarded impatience, as if waiting for a red light to turn green, “Oh c’mon! Why is this taking so long?”
I wish I knew more about the particulars of what happens after death. Many books—some bestsellers—have been written on the subject. A few years ago, a dear church member shared with the congregation his coming-back-from-death experience and the details of the conversation he had with the angel Gabriel. It never occurred to me to doubt him.
In Luke 20, Jesus is blindsided by some resurrection skeptics who weave together an elaborate tale of a woman married to seven brothers. Hoping to make Jesus look stupid, they ask him, “In the so-called resurrection, whose wife will she be?” I imagine Jesus thinking to himself as he rolls his eyes, “Oh for God’s sake, is this what occupies your time?”
The fact that Jesus goes on to downplay the importance of marriage in the next life and makes a passing reference that we will become like angels is, at best, a sketchy depiction devoid of any specifics of what a post-earthly existence will look like.
My own view on the topic is a borrowed one. When the late theologian, Marcus Borg, was asked what he believed about the resurrection and heaven, he admitted he was an agnostic—that is to say, he didn’t know. But this he did know, in death—as in life—he would be embraced by the God who transforms all things.
That’s good enough for me.