Yesterday I attended the funeral of the mother of a friend. The service was a beautiful tribute to a woman who was committed to her family and community and who made an impact on everyone she met. Though I didn’t know her personally, I was touched by the obvious love and affection everyone in the audience felt for her. I wish I’d had the chance to get to know her, and I’m grateful to know her daughter.

During the service, there was a lot of talk of heaven. I could see that the hope of eternal paradise brought great peace to the grieving family–and a much needed promise of seeing their beloved again that allowed for a celebration in the midst of their deep sadness. I do not begrudge anyone this faith in the afterlife. In fact, I well understand it and have respect for those who live their lives today for the reward they will receive in the hereafter. Most of my friends who believe in heaven are people who bring consciousness and intention to their lives.

The ceremony invited me to reflect on my own history. I once (for about twenty years) filtered all of my decisions through a narrow focus on the afterlife. For me (and I’m only talking about myself here) such a focus was very stressful. I never felt the comfort others talked about when discussing heaven. Instead, I worried about the eternal to the detriment of the “now.”  I feared making mistakes–particularly in my dogma–because everything I did or thought or believed was so dire in my mind. The years I was involved in a literalistic way of understanding God were years spent being very serious, and very frightened of failure. I was particularly terrified of failing to tell others about my faith because I believed that those who didn’t share my doctrine, would go to hell. The idea of hell and of anyone going there being intolerable to me, I think I must have been terribly tedious to unbelieving friends as I insisted they convert to my way of thinking. Not all people of faith who look forward to heaven are primarily trying to avoid going to hell, but I was.

In the years since I realized I needed to unpack my doctrines and loosen up my literalistic thinking, I’ve come to understand that we all make sense of death in unique ways. We have to. Death is always with us as one of the surest things in the human experience. As I sat in the memorial service yesterday and watched the slide show of my friend’s mother roll out the chronology of her life, I realized that she’d brought “heaven” into the lives of those she loved as surely as they hoped for heaven for her now. Because I sit much more in a place of not knowing (and not needing to know what I don’t know) than I used to, I was able to stay in the moment with those gathered, to tippy toe between the grief and the joy palpable in the auditorium, and to feel happy for the hope of reunion the family held.

This is progress for me, and I’m glad for it. In my religious days, I was activated by fear when I was with those who believed differently than I did. And then for many years after my “shift,” I was activated by anxiety when I encountered anyone speaking my old language of eternity. My heart was happy yesterday that I was able to enter into the essence of the memorial without any inner gnashing of teeth. It felt like heaven.

My questions for you: What still hooks you? What have you made peace with?

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