Perceptions of heaven and eternal life are varied, and too often full of misunderstandings. The title of this post represents one that I have heard over the years, namely, that when we go to heaven we become angels. Aside from the fact that angels and humans are distinctly different creatures, one being spiritual and one being corporeal with both body and spirit, the scriptures never once hold out any hint that such a transformation takes place once the deceased are parted from their bodies. Yet that doesn't matter. Many views on heaven and the life after death are formed quite apart from the clear witness of God's Word. They sound nice. And that's enough.
Which was well illustrated in the Sunday paper I was reading this morning. In the obituary section it is customary for people to offer not only the highlighted details of a person's life, but also a heart-felt thank you or other statement at the end. In the case of the one for Willis, they went so much further. At the end of the obituary is "A Letter from Heaven To my dearest family." In the letter he shares some things he wants to say, and what God told him after he arrived in heaven.
I know that the family is simply trying to find comfort and to assure themselves that their father and husband is now in heaven free of pain and suffering. But to make up a letter that was never sent and couldn't be even if he had wanted to? Why not turn to that in which we do find comfort, namely the Word of God, and remember how he had heard the Word and received the blessed Sacrament. But alas, the obit is strangely silent on these. One cannot even determine if he was a Christian. Not once is a church membership listed. Which undoubtedly explains what I read in the "letter" from heaven.
So here is part of the letter. I don't know if the family wrote this, or if they found it somewhere. Maybe one of you has read it elsewhere. It is unfortunately full of misunderstandings of heaven and God's purposes.
"Please do not be unhappy just because I'm out of sight
Remember that I am with you every morning, noon and night.
The day I had to leave you when my life on earth was through
God picked me up and hugged me and He said 'I welcome you,
It's good to have you back again, you were missed while you were gone,
As for your dearest family they'll be here later on.
I need you here badly, you're part of my plan
There's so much that we have to do to help our mortal man.'
God gave me a list of things that he wished for me to do
And foremost on the list was to watch and care for you
And when you lie in bed at night, the day's chores put to flight
God and I are closest to you...in the middle of the night......
I wish that I could tell you all that God has planned
If I were to tell you, you wouldn't understand...."
How far afield we go when life and death are detached from God's clear Word! "I needed you here badly"? God was short-staffed without him? What about all those "ministering spirits sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation" (Hebrews 1:14)? Oh, I forgot, it appears that Willis must now be an angel himself. For now his job is the "watch and care" for his family. I guess God didn't have enough resources prior to that. This is comforting?
Unfortunately in the desire to find comfort in the "sting of death," people avoid the pain and live in a type of denial. Even if the deceased did not believe, did not attend church, did not speak of God or Christ or show any signs of faith by what he confessed, we still have this inner need to tell everyone that he has gone to heaven and now assists in God's real work. What deception Satan spreads.
As a pastor I am always sensitive to the misunderstandings people have of death and life, especially when I am preaching at a funeral. Having attended a few funerals of some of my member's families, I am saddened when the grieving are offered merely a eulogy and no Christ. Somehow we need to assure ourselves that he was a good person now that he is dead, when we might have thought quite differently when he was alive. When I preach a funeral I look for objective assurance that the deceased, as a sinful human being in need of God's grace, was forgiven and strengthened by the means He has given: Word and Sacrament.
I start with Baptism and remind the hearers of God's work that began there when the deceased was buried with Christ and raised again to newness of life. The markers of the person's life that matter most now are indications of God's work in Christ as they were ministered to by their Lord by the Word. For this is all that we can find comfort in for ourselves.
The funerals that were most edifying for me to do as a pastor were two dear women of my parish who died over the last couple of years. These women not only were active in worship, and regularly fed on God's Word and Sacrament, but they left a testimony of this faith in the pages of their study Bibles, regularly used in many studies at church over the years. I took their own words and shared with the family how they found their own comfort there in God's clear Word, not in made up wishes.
I am sorry that Willis' family has only this fraudulent letter for comfort. How sad that God's closeness and presence are detached from where they can be assured of his presence. I hope if a minister preached at a funeral he offered something else. I hope he gave them Christ instead.