Not so far

The Jacob’s Dream, Chagall

On Sunday our church commemorated All Saints Sunday. For many reasons, but particularly since I have engaged in work as a hospice chaplain, it has become one of my favorite Sundays of the year. It is not an easy Sunday. The day is filled with tears and the ache of separation from loved ones. For those with recent losses, the pain can be severe. However, I can’t think of a time, besides the Triduum (Good Friday/Holy Saturday/Easter), when the sting of death and our hope in Christ come into such bold relief.

For one thing, it is one of the rare days when we actually talk about “the communion of saints.”

Not long ago, I went and met with the widow of one of our patients. Neither of them were particularly religious people, but they welcomed me throughout his time of care and always appreciated when I prayed for them. She had grown up in the Catholic church, and her brother had gone to Europe to study for the priesthood. He died there in a tragic boating accident, and her family never got over the pain. Now she had lost her husband and told me she now felt a bit lost herself after having been a caregiver for many years.

But she wanted to tell me something, a story she thought I’d appreciate. Not long before he died, she said her husband started having conversations with his deceased mother. The exchanges he had with her were clear as day, she said, as though his mom were right there, physically in the room with him. There was nothing extraordinary in the content of their conversations, but she was struck by how engaged and focused he was as he spoke with his invisible parent.

This is not the first time I’ve heard a story like this. I wrote about another instance in a post several years ago. It was about a friend named George, who had lost his wife Mildred.

George had a question for me that day, too. He had been having visions of Mildred. Lying in bed, he would look over at the bathroom door, and she would be standing there, dressed nicely, smiling. When he sat up to get a closer look, she began to fade and soon she was gone. One time she was lying next to him in bed. He wondered what it meant.

I asked him how it made him feel to see her. It made him feel good, he said, when she was there. He was a little bit confused about why she did not stay.

He had asked me about this once before, but I only had a vague recollection of what I’d said then. His daughter prompted me, “I think you said something last time about how maybe this was God’s way of letting dad know that mom is okay.” I nodded.

“But George,” I said, “I think there may be something more here. Most of us have been taught to think that ‘heaven’ is a place far, far away, out there somewhere. My understanding is that it is more like another dimension all around us, right here. There’s another reality surrounding us that we can’t see, but it’s here and it’s just as real as the things we can touch. That’s God’s realm, and we call it heaven. He and our loved ones are with us, they are close to us even when we can’t see them. And for some reason, at some times, it seems like God opens the curtain a little bit and gives us a glimpse into that unseen world. There are several stories in the Bible that lead me to see it that way.”

“Maybe it’s like that verse that says, ‘In my Father’s house are many rooms,’” his daughter suggested. “Mom is just in a different room, and God cracks the door open once in awhile to remind us of that.”

I wasn’t sure about her exegesis, but she was right!

“So George, Mildred didn’t come to you from far away when you saw her those times,” I assured him. “She is here, close to you all the time. But every once in awhile, God has given you the gift of seeing her presence.”

I asked him what he thought about that, and he liked it.

George, Mildred, and the Thin Places

In our service on Sunday, to prepare for the Table I referenced the Iconostasis in Orthodox sanctuaries. This screen separates the Nave from the Sanctuary, or better, it connects the two areas.

…the Iconostasis also has a symbolic meaning. It is seen as the boundary between two worlds: the Divine and the human, the permanent and the transitory. The Holy Icons denote that the Savior, His Mother and the Saints, whom they represent, abide both in Heaven and among men. Thus the Iconostasis both divides the Divine world from the human world, but also unites these same two worlds into one whole a place where all separation is overcome and where reconciliation between God and man is achieved. Standing on the boundary between the Divine and the human, the Iconostasis reveals, by means of its Icons, the ways to this reconciliation.

St. Tikhon’s Seminary

We don’t have an Iconostasis in the Lutheran church, but on Sunday we had an ark-shaped vessel filled with sand, in which people had placed lighted candles to represent their loved ones who had passed. I told the people that the candle container was placed beside the Table to remind us that we are not only meeting with the Lord in communion but we are also joining the saints in heaven as they worship before the throne. The communion of saints! On All Saints Sunday, the Table, which is always meant to be a “thin place” where we encounter heavenly reality, had an added visible dimension, one which testified to the unseen multitudes of faithful departed with whom we were encountering the risen Christ.

Heaven is not so far. Our loved ones are not so far. In God we live and move and have our being. And with him are those who rest in his care forever.

In some moments, God lets us see that more clearly than at other times.

48 thoughts on “Not so far

  1. I didn’t express myself well. What I meant to convey was that, since Christ said expressly that came to give us life, we should expect as the final outcome of everything neither perpetual torture nor oblivion.



  2. Some comments were spam. When deleted, the entire thread disappears. Sorry about that, but we’ve had an invader recently posing as a commenter, and I’m trying to stay on top of it.


  3. Is pain the worst thing imaginable… Or is it instead the possibility that our lives only exist and have meaning while we live, with NOTHING awaiting us afterwards but blank Oblivion? That, to me, is the ultimate horror, not hell. Hell at least points to eternal meaning of our actions and loves in this life. Oblivion means meaninglessness.


  4. Maybe the praise is in the doing. What greater gratitude can a child show for the gift of a wonderful toy, what greater praise for the toy itself, than to tirelessly play with it?


  5. The idea of existing in either a place of state of being like Hell, eternal, conscious torment, is enough to make anyone yearn for oblivion.


  6. Dana, this isn’t about whether heaven is or isn’t a place, but whether you would rather exist in perpetual torment or not exist at all.


  7. Jesus came that we might have life, and that more abundantly.

    Non-existence is exactly the thing he died (and rose) to rescue us FROM. Not so we can go to “heaven” as another place, but so that we can be in communion with God and one another forever in love.



  8. Robert, as long as you love you know and are known. Knowledge of other persons (including the Persons of the Trinity) is subjective. That doesn’t mean it always comes with feelings or emotions, but we meet one another on a subjective level – that’s communion. I’m not clear on how it all “works”, but I believe it because of Jesus Christ.



  9. Chronic pain, chronic misery, chronic torment, chronic fear… Nah, I think I’d prefer to know non-existence, because you don’t know what you don’t know.


  10. maybe what’s ‘special’ is ‘renewal’
    . . . . . ‘BEHOLD, I MAKE ALL THINGS NEW ‘

    the phrase ‘all things’ seems mighty inclusive to me


  11. Standard evangelical opinion seems to be that the spiritual world does not extend to animals but I don’t see that supported in scripture, maybe I am missing something. And when I see things like how elephants honor the bones of their ancestors or animals play I wonder.

    CS Lewis thought the spiritual included our little furry friends but this part of his writings never seems to have caught up with the rest of what the church has embraced.

    Maybe some folks feel that if all creation is special then no one is special. And maybe that is also why some folks think 90% of humanity is doomed to Hades because if all were special then no one would truly be special and most of us want to be special.

    These are just my own meandering thoughts on the subject… 🙂


  12. Simply respond that the traditional doctrine of “heaven” is nowhere to be found in the New Testament. The Jewish Christians expected the Kingdom of God. On a New Earth. Heaven meant the realm of the sky and the stars. The “heavenlies” is where the divine world was, above the sky and stars. And by the way the idea of a “soul” that leaves your body and drifts off into the aether wasn’t Jewish either. They believed in a bodily resurrection. In the kingdom. On a New Earth. How can the lion and the lamb lie down together in the Kingdom if there are no animals? -Sigh- Nobody actually reads the Bible anymore.


  13. Interesting. The reticence of people to talk about it gives it more credibility to my way of thinking.


  14. No these are reports of experiences of the “presence” of departed loved ones not simply talking to them with no expectation of an answer. Apparently a sizeable minority of people have had this experience. There was a study back in 2014 at the university of Milan and there is ongoing research in the UK. They are called “post-bereavement hallucinatory experiences” (PBHEs) and occur most frequently, as the name says, in people who have recently undergone the death of a loved one. There is also a phenomenon called “visitation dreams” where recently departed loved one appear in very vivid dreams. None of this is New Age crap. People just don’t normally talk about it cause it’s pretty weird stuff.


  15. Odds are, human evil is what most of us will be coming face-to-face with. And that will be dangerous enough.


  16. 1) Because there are no “clobber verses” that say animals will be in heaven.

    2) Because in heaven, we’re only supposed to care about God – i.e. singing praise hymns on perpetual loop forever.


  17. –> “There’s a difference between pursuing it, and responsibly dealing with it when it rears its ugly head. Jesus modeled the latter. ”

    Jesus was clearly unafraid of dealing with demons. Stepped right up to that “thinness” and showed who had true authority.

    I, on the other hand, would prefer not to come face-to-face with a demon, even with Jesus living in me. Not sure I could keep my knees from buckling.


  18. There’s a difference between pursuing it, and responsibly dealing with it when it rears its ugly head. Jesus modeled the latter.

    Because of the abuses and excesses, the church has largely been robbed of its opportunity to “set captives free” in a way that Jesus modeled.


  19. Nice!

    It makes me wonder: What does it serve the people who tell you “oh, there won’t be any dogs in heaven”? Why do they do that? What is their purpose? Why do they insist on crushing us “pet people’s” hopes that our animals will be there waiting for us?


  20. To me, it’s a mix of hell and “some good stuff.” But certainly there’s enough of the “hell” crap that… nah, I’d prefer NOT to live in a permanent Hell, no thank you.


  21. Stephen,
    I tell my small cremated dog who passed two weeks ago that I love him. If this makes me crazy, I’m okay with it.

    Sometimes it’s the love that is eternal, the pup’s love for me, and mine for him. And if love itself is eternal, we are not so far from those we hold dear after all.


  22. –> “As an Evangelical; my belief is [ when my time on Earth is over] I am forever known – forever valued”

    Not sure you’ll get much argument from others here. And my belief is that I’m forever known, forever valued, PRIOR TO when my time on Earth is over.


  23. I am too – I’ve had recently bereaved young people tell me they have seen or spoken to recently passed loved ones, in most cases being assured of love, or putting issues between them to rest. I didn’t feel the need to define or explain these.


  24. I find that thought of non-being as peaceful, like how I feel when I think of before I existed. Just like a very deep sleep. Not that I don’t prefer the alternative, which I do believe, but I don’t freak out about returning to nature.


  25. “It’s only right to be consistent about the “thinness” between earth and the unseen spiritual world.”

    “That Hideous Strength” by C.S. Lewis

    Lewis, in the book, opines a thin curtain dividing the physical world of planet earth from the outer world of spirits/demons.

    I’ve always thought he was on to something and have AVOIDED pursuing the “spirit world.” I do not WANT to peak thru the “thinness” between earth and the unseen spiritual world.


  26. I’m OK with not writing off the people who’ve had these experiences as psychologically disturbed… as long as it’s equally not OK writing off people who report demonic disturbances. (Excesses and abuses notwithstanding).

    It’s only right to be consistent about the “thinness” between earth and the unseen spiritual world.


  27. Looked at from a purely scientific viewpoint one little known factoid is how common the experience of communication with departed loved ones is. The folks that keep such statistics estimate that as many as 1 in 8 people will have this experience.

    By communication with the dead, do the statistics you refer to say that 1 in 8 Americans hear the dead talking or otherwise communicating with them, or themselves speak to the dead without necessarily hearing or sensing a clear response? There’s a big difference between the two. I myself have spoken to the dead, prayed for them, asked for their prayers, but never once heard or otherwise sensed any response — am I among the 1 in 8? Or are only two way communications, dialogue if you will, counted in those statistics?.


  28. Looked at from a purely scientific viewpoint one little known factoid is how common the experience of communication with departed loved ones is. The folks that keep such statistics estimate that as many as 1 in 8 people will have this experience. It’s not talked about much because even in a so-called “Christian” culture such as ours it’s still considered a bit dodgy to admit such. These experiences range from feelings of presence to dreams to full blown sightings/visions/hallucinations (you pick). If you’re of a naturalist bent you’ll say these are psychological responses to grief and loss, one part of your brain talking to another part I guess. If you’re more mystical you’ll note that perhaps the wall between the worlds is more porous than we realize. Anyway this is a recognized phenomenon however you interpret it.

    I talk to my deceased brother. I have no idea if he hears me but it makes me feel better.


  29. I think I already know what beliefs you profess, at least with regard to Christian faith; it’s pretty standard-issue mainstream evangelical stuff. I’m sure that you’re absolutely certain about all of it, aren’t you?


  30. ” What saddens me when I think of this possibility is that loss of knowledge, of knowing, that comes from perception and being. To not be known, and not be able to know, seems like a hopeless fate to me.”

    As an Evangelical; my belief is [ when my time on Earth is over] I am forever known – forever valued


  31. It saddens me to think that dead is done. If that is the case, then it’s the end of knowledge, in every sense of that word. You’re done, but you’ll never know it, because you won’t actually exist in a state of death, you won’t “be dead” — you just won’t be. What saddens me when I think of this possibility is that loss of knowledge, of knowing, that comes from perception and being. To not be known, and not be able to know, seems like a hopeless fate to me.


  32. “Unless I can see the nail prints and put my hand into His side where the spear went through…”

    Thomas is my patron saint.


  33. I’ve never had a visceral sense of the closeness of any departed family or friends, or anyone else for that matter. There are some I’d just as soon not have that sense about; my relationship to them in this life was full of unresolved pain, alienation, and hostility. If I ever reflect on the closeness of all those who have passed on, it always feels like an abstraction, something that may be possible but that I’m by no means certain or convinced of; the same is true when I on occasion pray for them. I suppose the same could be said about my feelings when I reflect on the existence of, or I pray to, God.


  34. I know many people who would give sound psychological explanations for the events described above. And at this point in my life, all I can say is, I hope it’s more than that.


  35. This last Sunday our new pastor invited the congregation to participate in the same candle ritual during Communion that you describe. It was obviously very meaningful to the people, as the vessel was full of candles by the end of Holy Communion. Regretfully, many Protestants have neglected the importance and power of involving the whole body in the church’s liturgy. I think many Protestants are starving for this, whether they aware of it or can articulate it or not.


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