Sunday, June 2, 2013

Church of Thought Part II - Heaven special

Once again, I couldn't motivate myself to get out of bed, into the cold and head into an unfamiliar environment. Once again, this decision made me feel guilty.

As it is, I only commit to going to church once a fortnight. I used to go 3-4 times a week. Also this "commitment"? It exists only to myself - a decision I made about what I would do this year. I don't have a Pastor, a Minister, a Priest checking in on me, wondering where I am. I don't even have a congregation who will notice my absence. I don't even have a church.

So who is this 'they' I'm referring to? Is it Christians? Well I haven't seen any today. In fact, now I'm not going to church I'm unlikely to bump into a Christian for another two weeks. Is it the memory of churches past? If so, why haven't I been feeling bad the last five years I haven't been in church? I know when I wrote that status I meant "churches" but if this last 6 months has taught me anything, it's that there is no such thing as the collective church. Every church I've been to has been far removed from any other, with only one common denominator - faith. And it's this notion of faith I've been thinking about for weeks.

It was the Officer's closing remarks at the Salvation Army church that challenged me. She was addressing a congregation with real need. They were living with addiction, homelessness, mental illness. She said it was best to remember that while our struggles seem impossible now, we have the promise of Heaven in front of us, and our problems now, however hard, will just be a blip in the eternity of our lives.

Heaven itself, as a concept, is something I've been 'figuring out' for years. Back in 2008 when I started re-defining what my faith was, Heaven was a non-negotiable. I'd lost a best friend that year, and nobody was going to tell me he was anywhere other than with his Father in Heaven - right where he wanted, and deserved to be.

Over the last while though, I've had a big think about Heaven. I've read the work of several scientists, including neuroscientists, who explain what happens to our bodies and "souls" in death and the absence of an afterlife. I must admit, their evidence seems pretty foolproof. Even Eric & Mary at the Jehovah's Witnesses church told me their bible doesn't teach Heaven as a place where people go when they die - rather it's the place where God and Angels live, and there is no such thing as a soul.

I spoke with my dad about my struggle to accept a world without a Heaven. It certainly is a place that makes everything we go through seem more than worth it. And it takes death and makes it something wonderful, or at least hopeful. I told my dad that I wasn't okay with my friend simply being gone forever. He had to be somewhere.

Dad said that my friend was somewhere. He was with me. In my heart, in my memories. And not only was he still with me, he was in the hearts and memories of everyone who knew him. For as long as we live, he lives with us.

Once I saw the beauty in this, I was able to settle in my heart what I'd truly known for years - I don't believe in Heaven. And on this particular Sunday at the Salvation Army church, it really affected me.

Here's why.

As I've said, these congregants had real need. They weren't spoilt Pentecostals who needed more money or a better job. They needed food, clothes, peace. Their problems weren't trivial. They were basic human needs. And their needs should be met - in this lifetime.

By offering them the promise of Heaven, we're not addressing their issues, we're telling them they're irrelevant - a "blip in eternity" if you will. By passing off these needs as token, we're not performing the work that Christians, or fellow citizens for that matter, should be doing. We need to help these people solve their problems - not wave faith at them and hope for the best.

Example one: Lets say Liz (from the Salvation Army) has ten years left of her life. She finds a church that tells her in ten years, everything will be okay. She will be warm, loved and safe. Liz feels hope for the first time since her husband died in the war and she was left with nothing (dramatisation). She feels happy. She feels loved by God.

But she leaves the church, and she's still hungry. She still has to spend her afternoon trying to find somewhere to sleep that night. She still has to spend that day in the same filthy clothes she's been wearing for weeks. She is still alone.

Example two: Liz has ten years left of her life. She finds a church that makes her feel special, cherished. They take her in and give her something to eat. They keep her safe until they can find somewhere for her to live. They buy her new clothes and take her old ones to the laundromat. Liz has people in her life that love her and care for her. Liz feels stronger everyday, and on Sundays, she now helps make cups of tea for the other visitors to church. She has purpose. She has hope. She feels happy.

Faith offers something to people who have nothing - no doubt. But it isn't a solution to real problems. And we shouldn't use it as an excuse to ignore the reality of their world. Especially because, odds are, this is it. And even if you do believe in Heaven, isn't it God's own prayer that we have 'Heaven on Earth'? Why shouldn't we be working towards providing this type of sanctuary for all man?

This is why I said at the end of my visit to the Salvation Army I felt myself moving closer to atheism. Atheism puts the responsibility solely on us. No cop outs. If people don't do something to fix the world, it'll remain broken. I guess I'm beginning to understand the 'new atheist' arguments against the very notion of faith itself. Faith that causes us to sit back isn't good for anyone.

And to be fair to the Christians I meet - they're not sitting on their hands waiting for God to make the world change. They are doing what they think is right. But I just wonder, if the promise of Heaven is causing us to feel a little more comfortable than we ought.

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