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Credo X

“He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.”

Have you ever wondered what everlasting life would look like? Not eternal–everlasting. If you had been born in 1750, you could have fought in the American Revolution and still be with the Navy Seals today. You could have been George Washington’s aide and Joe Biden’s administrative assistant. By now, you could have learned to speak all of the languages of Europe and Japanese, Korean, and Chinese. If musically inclined, you could play every instrument in the orchestra. If you put a dollar in a savings account with 5% interest, it would be worth millions today. You would be rich! Add a few more centuries, say being born in 3B.C., and the possibilities magnify.

It’s hard to imagine.

That’s the good part, and it assumes your health remains good and the aging process stops when you are in your prime. The bad part is that you may have buried many wives and several generations of children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. Every love will be a loss. I wonder if  it would make me cautious of caring. The price of everlasting life might be loneliness.

It’s hard to imagine.

What would it look like if Jesus hadn’t taken the heavenly option? What if the ascension had never taken place and He continued to walk the earth in bodily form, doing the occasional healing, raising someone from the dead, challenging religious hypocrites everywhere? Would He lead a mega-mega church? Would the humble rebel of Galilee become the CEO for the New World Order? Or would He be an under-the-radar kind of revolutionary?

It’s hard to imagine.

It is also hard to imagine heaven. We can quickly let go of the amusing images of winged angels strumming harps while seated on clouds, and the long-bearded, white-robed St. Peter checking the big book for reservations at the pearly gates. Even in this word from the creed, “ascended” loses literal meaning in our current understanding of the physical universe. Ascending takes one ultimately to outer space, not heaven. And the phrase cannot literally mean that Jesus is “seated.” Why not standing? Why not flying? And what can “the right hand of God” possibly look like? Not four big fingers and an opposable thumb, surely.

We are reduced to metaphor because heaven is beyond our mortal comprehension. Ascended still makes sense in that heaven is separated from the dirt and the darkness that we find when we descend. Heaven is somewhere, but it seems to be in another sphere than our current time-space continuum. Jesus may or may not be seated but he is surely in the presence of the Father almighty and united with the Father in a way that is so far beyond our experience that we can only term it “at the right hand.”

My father was a deacon in our Lutheran church in Minneapolis when I was a teen-ager and young adult. This meant he wore black robes once a month and helped to serve communion. He also went to a lot of meetings and knew all the pastors on a first name basis. It involved a lot more, but I was privy to very little of it. My dad was fairly laconic, and truthfully, I wasn’t interested.

Until one Sunday afternoon when he took a call in my room while I was a college student. Back in the day of land lines and short cords, there were only limited places one could talk on the phone, and on that day my upstairs room was the only available quiet place. He ignored me while I studied at my desk on the far side of the room, but I could not ignore him.

A kid from the confirmation class had apparently been given the assignment to ask a deacon a question about faith. This junior-high-aged boy called Dad to ask what heaven was like.

Although I was only getting one side of the conversation, I got that much, stopped poring over the extremely puzzling calculus textbook, and started listening. I suppose Dad could have told him about the streets paved with gold and the river of life lined by twelve trees along as outlined in the Revelation of John. But he didn’t. He told the boy he didn’t know what it would be like physically, didn’t know about wings or not wings, harps or no harps, clouds or mansions or any of the other common metaphors. He told him that his best guess was that it would be a feeling like the one that comes at the end of a day of hard work when you know you’ve accomplished something worthwhile and you know that everyone you love will have enough food and enough clothing and a safe, warm place to sleep that night, and everything was right with the world. Dad told him that sense of joy and peace didn’t come very often, but that was his best guess about heaven. It would feel like that.

Then Dad listened for a long time. He shared an occasional word of comfort, but his back was to me and his voice was soft. I waited, staring down at the still incomprehensible book, my mind now a million miles away from calculus. When he got off the phone, Dad quietly explained the conversation to me. The part I hadn’t heard was that the boy had lost his father six months before. His question wasn’t academic, it wasn’t theoretical, it wasn’t theological. It was personal. The boy wanted to know Where’s my dad now?

My dad wasn’t much of a music fan or art critic, but after he moved to Florida at the age of seventy he had a favorite print on the wall of his townhouse. It was a rural landscape of snowy fields and barren trees, just past sunset with a golden horizon below and an indigo sky above. In one corner, small compared to the scale of the painting, sat a farmhouse with a wisp of smoke coming from the chimney and warm light poring from the windows. To everybody else the print looked like “winter on the farm.” To Dad, it looked like heaven.

I don’t know about whether Jesus “ascended” or got beamed up or got transformed. I don’t know if He’s sitting or standing or flying. I don’t know what the right hand of the Father almighty looks like. But I’m sure that Jesus is united with the Father in some way I can’t comprehend, except that the union is the ultimate source of all peace and all joy. The price of eternal life is not loneliness. Jesus is there. So is Dad.

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