...but nobody wants to die, or so the saying, the song (I like Alison Krauss's version) and the occasional sermon title go. And I guess it's true, up to a point, but it's never exactly been my theme song. Although by no means anxious to die, for the longest time I didn't especially want to go to heaven either.
This is something of a problem in the Christian scheme of things and I blame careless Sunday school teachers and preachers for allowing it to develop. Kids are literalists sometimes, you know, and I came away from encounters with those well-meaning folks with the imprint in my poor little head of city streets paved with gold lined with Hollywood-style mansions, sort of like in those overbuilt suburbs west of the Interstate in Des Moines, with palm trees, camels, sandals and white robes thrown in for good measure. Heck, folks, I'm an Iowa country boy. That ain't no heaven I'm interested in.
And what were we going to do there? Praise God --- day after day after day in a hard old pew singing hymns and listening to preachers drone on. That's it? Well, that could get old real quick, I thought, especially for God.
The alternative was eternal rest. Sorry, but I'm in solidarity here with the old gal who when asked if she feared death replied, "not at all, but the thought of eternal rest horrifies me." She planned to take her knitting needles along, as well as a few packets of seed and a hoe.
Now you're are going to laugh at this, but as the years passed I developed an alternate and I figured forbidden vision of heaven that conformed roughly to southern Iowa on a really good day.
Imprinted as firmly in my head as that Sunday school vision of heaven is the memory of a golden October evening many years ago, walking down the valley toward home with the dogs after rounding up sheep in the upper pasture, bringing them home for the night --- poor dumb and defenseless critters in a world filled with coyotes.
On the right, a line of cottonwoods had turned to gold and sentinel pin oaks, mahogany; and in the distance, hickory hill flamed a slightly different hue against a sky supremely blue. Just around the corner and up the hill in a warm house full of love it was almost supper time.
It doesn't get any better than this, I thought then --- and still do; and at the end of the trail I hope to walk that path toward home again.
Sunday afternoon, hiking down the cinder path just beyond the mile marker I took a right turn through the open gate alongside a bend in the river and up into a field planted as winter forage for wildlife.
One thing I love about fall is the ability to see the shape of things, especially burr oaks, and there they were. Another is the intense deep blue sky that appears at no other time of year. It was there, too.
Standing under an oak arch with others in the distance, a flock of blackbirds descended into the trees above me and began to chatter. The sun disappeared, reappeared and suddenly the south wind picked up and swept fallen leaves around my ankles, their rustle and the chatter of the birds the only sounds. Heaven again.
Getting older it finally dawned on me that it was OK to think of heaven in these terms. Preachers and Sunday school teachers can tell us little more than a few generally accepted things --- no more sorrow, no more parting, pain or fear, no more war. Beyond that, they're as much in the dark about the precise shape of things to come as the rest of us are.
So it's OK to find yourself in heaven now and then, to define it for yourself. And it's always useful to keep your eyes open --- it might just be around the next bend in the trail.
I got to thinking about heaven Sunday I think because it was All Saints Day, a major feast day for many Christians, including Episcopalians, but in disrepute among or ignored by most protestants who consider a day set aside to celebrate saints just too Catholic. Get over it.
Our vicar, descended from Welsh coal miners, insists the that All Saints Day originated in Ireland, then traveled from there to Rome, so if you're more comfortable calling All Saints "Celtic" rather than "Catholic" feel free.
And I've got to say the Roman church did complicate the situation after us pesky protestants popped up by turning sainthood into a control issue, developing an elaborate protocol for investigating and "proving" the unprovable.
But the secret here is that sainthood is not reserved for the big guns or those more recently canonized by the Roman church. We all have our "canon" of saints, people who by act or deed or just by being changed our lives for the better. I thought about my saints of blessed memory, too, walking down the Cinder Path on Sunday.
One of the hymns for All Saints Day at St. Andrew's follows. Listening to Buddy Green and friend perform it, to my mind at least, can be considered heaven, too.