Advent’s Four Last Things: HEAVEN II

A young mother, grieving for the death of a baby, asks the question, ‘Will I be reunited with my Olivia in heaven?’

An elderly widower expresses certainty that he will be with his bride in heaven.

It’s almost as though Christian faith depends on after-death reunions of loved ones. The guidance, however, that Scripture gives us on this is vague and contradictory.

So, the totally honest answer to this question, especially as no-one has returned to tell us, is that we don’t know. But when faced with the direct question, ‘Will we be reunited in heaven?’, I hesitate.

Of course, the temptation for us pastors is to give the easy answer, the answer that people want to hear. The reality, however, is that we understand so little about life after death: what does time mean in life and after we die? What does resurrection mean for us as individuals? Will there be a different experience for those who do not identify as Christians? How will we connect with those from whom we have been estranged in this life? Cynical Sadducees asked Jesus a similar question, ‘In the resurrection, whose wife will she be?’ (Matthew 22:28)

Many people believe firmly that the church teaches that we, as individuals, will be united after death with loved ones. Many clergy taking funerals, without directly endorsing this view, allow it to stand as an implication of their pastoral message. I understand this prevarication: we are motivated to tell good news. I am deeply uncomfortable, however, with its dishonesty. This teaching falls short. There is better news.

The idea that we will be united with loved ones after death springs from a good place: it is an idea that the best God has given us in this life is love, and the one thing that we should expect from the eternal God is ongoing love.

In this life, we love with our bodies: we make love with our spouse with our body; we are present in the body to our friends. When we are absent from our loved ones, we project our bodies through space to continue the contact – our image on FaceTime, our voice on the telephone, our hand-writing in a card. These symbols of our body tell our loved one that we yearn to be present in the body.

Death destroys the body. Dust we are, and to dust we return (v. Genesis 3:19). The body is then transformed in resurrection. We know almost nothing about what Saint Paul calls the ‘resurrection body’, only that we would be a ‘foolish person’ to imagine it to be the same as our current body. It is as different from the natural body as the wheat plant is from a grain (I Corinthians 15:36-37)!

Love, after death, will also be the same and categorically different. While our bodies can love gloriously, God promises a love after death that is different in degree and in expression:  a much better love. All bodily limitations to love will be removed and transformed. Who knows whether we will rise as individuals, or as love promises, somehow joined in love? Or something entirely different, and, as yet, unimagined?

My plea is that we settle for more than the idea that we will be reunited with loved ones, and that we take the Bible at its word (I Corinthians 2:9, quoting Isaiah 64:4), that God will exceed our imagination as to how wonderful love in the resurrection will be. It will be heaven!




No Sex, Please: We Might be Sore

Definition of sexuality:
“Being so attentive to another that you tend to merge with that other.”
Those words, with capital ‘O’s, could equally be a definition of spirituality.
“Being so attentive to an Other that you tend to merge with that Other.”
For some mystics, sexuality and spirituality are aspects of the same reality: the purpose of human life is to “get out of oneself” and merge with the larger Reality. Saint John of the Cross, for example, lusciously described his prayer life as sexual pursuit and mutual seduction.

The Bible regards human beings as in-breathed bodies, that is, spiritual bodies: not spirits AND bodies, nor flesh AND soul, but just one united package. In classical Christian thought, no division can be made between body, mind and spirit. To emphasise one aspect (say, the spiritual) over another aspect (say, the physical) depreciates the essential wholeness of the human person. So for Christians, having sex is never purely physical, because the human beings engaged in sex are spiritual, emotional, thinking (etc!) bodies. Having sex should be making love. If it is not, the act is expressing hate, or showing indifference. The physical act is inextricably linked to the greater human reality.

For those in pain, sex may be painful. Doctors today even recognise this. In the 20 years following my major operation, sexuality didn’t appear to exist for pain sufferers. Doctors paid attention to the effects pain and pills had on every other function of your body/mind, but avoided mentioning the major impacts pain has on your sex life.

Nowadays, there are questions on pain questionnaires which ask you to rate the obstacle your pain causes for your enjoyment of sex, but I have not yet met a doctor willing to actually discuss the questionnaire results, which in my case document the additional pain of having sex and the decrease of enjoyment of sex. A doctor prepared to discuss sex and pain with me would be a bonus.

For those in pain, it can feel as though the physical pain is taking away the emotional and spiritual joy of making love. But that is not all. Not only is the pain a turn-off, but also body image,
disappointment and lack of control contribute to a diminished sex life.
The pain itself lessens the enjoyment of sex. The person in pain then sees their body as being less than it should be, and their body image becomes yet another barrier to full enjoyment of the other.

Faulty body image means not that something is wrong with the body, but with a person’s picture of their body. A faulty body image arises in chronic pain from not looking at the whole body. A person with chronic pain who looks carefully at their body, however, will find more that is right than is wrong. Looking attentively at what is really there is not only a spiritual act, but also a healing one.

Disappointed with their body’s betrayal, they withdraw from sexual activity, fearing more disappointment. Pills, the pain and one’s partner’s reaction to the medicalising of our lives all reduce one’s sexual response. Sometimes I’m aroused, but at other times, not. This loss of control adds to the spiralling decrease in sexual interest.
It’s easy to give up, or to give in to anger and resentment. But there are genuinely positive ways of responding.

1. Talk about these things to your partner.
Researchers have noted how difficult it is for even loving couples to talk about sex. It may be that your pain and the challenges it brings is a gift to your sex life. It can oblige you how to talk together about sex. The aim is to make love. The agenda of your conversation is how do we make love given the physical and emotional obstacles pain causes?
2. Fall in love all over again by realising how precious touch is; all touch, and not just sexual touch.
So hold hands. Gently brush your partner’s skin as you pass. Kiss when you wake up and kiss when you get ready for sleep. A sexual relationship is not restricted to 20 minutes in bed. Its joy is its anticipation of the constant presence of your lover.
Touch, too, is the precursor to massage. I am one of those who dislike massage. But a gentle touch relaxes my muscles and can reduce pain.
On the principle that ‘it is more blessed to give than to receive’, share the touching and be attentive more to your partner than to your pain.

3. Keep your bedroom a bower for intimacy (and sleeping!), and stop it looking like a hospital.
Take pills off the bedside table; put medical equipment in the cupboard; take pain diaries and exercise charts down from the walls and put them out of sight, preferably out of the bedroom. Cover hospital pillows with a quilt or colourful slips.

4. Be tolerant of your mind’s nocturnal fantasies.
Sexual dreams involving others are not necessarily temptations to infidelity. They may just be your mind working out ways of maximising your physical and emotional enjoyment of life under restricted circumstances. Learn to welcome your unconscious mind’s attempts to link physical sexuality with emotional and spiritual love. Your mind knows how important it is for you to love your body and with your body.

In all things, be attentive and open to the love of the Other. As other human beings do, make love as best you can within the limitations of what you are given.

In times of temporary or ongoing celibacy with chronic pain, the two-way definition of loving the other/Other still applies: “Be so attentive to an Other that you tend to merge with that Other.” In the 13th century Franciscan theologian Dun Scotus taught that every creature is a little Word of God: an instance of Incarnation. Every person or being to which one gives one’s loving and respectful attention draws us closer into union with God.

For those of us in continuing pain, this knowledge is a beacon of hope. We do have the ability to look beyond our preoccupation with ourselves and our pain, and look into the face of God. That’s sexy. That’s the ultimate in spirituality.