Those Pearly Gates

My grandma is dying. The doctors and nurses say her death is imminent though she has been known to rally before. But there will probably not be a rally this time, which is okay. She has lived much longer than she would have without serious medical intervention. She has some severe form of dementia and for the last few years has struggled to remember even the simplest details. When my grandpa died six years ago, she began to steadily decline mentally. I think she is ready to be done and as she believes in life after death, I think she is looking forward to being with my grandpa and being well again.

It may sound callous to say that I am happy for her. But, if what I believe is true, then she will go on living. Thinking about my grandma’s impending death (which of course leads me to think about my parents’ deaths and my death someday) is the ultimate challenge to my faith. If what I believe is true, then death is merely a passing from one realm to another. But what if it is not? Then death is the most frightening thing we can imagine. As I read recently, if we only have one life to live, is it worth living? 

Growing up death was terrifying. The first death I remember was my uncle’s. He died due to pneumonia when I was sick. I remember a few things, like visiting the hospital. Because I was so little, I was not allowed to go in his room and had to play My Little Ponies in the waiting room with my cousin Sabrina. Obviously I was not thinking about the philosophical implications of the events. I can remember one day when my dad cried and was sad after a phone call. When I asked my mom why everyone was crying, she told me my uncle had died. As heaven was a very assumed reality to me, I did not necessarily understand the sadness.

At church in San Francisco, we used to sing a song about heaven. I do not know the exact words but it’s something about not rollerskating up to the pearly gates. Some research has uncovered the actual lyrics:

Oh you can't get to heaven
on roller skates
'cause you'll skate right through those pearly gates

Oh you can’t get to heaven
with nickels in your jeans
'cause the Lord don't allow
No slot machines

Oh you can’t get to heaven
in a rocking chair
'cause the Lord don't allow
no lazy bones there

Oh you can’t get to heaven
on a pair of skis
'cause you'll ski right through
St. Peter's knees

If you get there before I do
Just drill a hole
And pull me through

If I get there
Before you do
I'll drill a hole
And spit on you

This was my first lesson about heaven. Heaven would have pearly gates and golden streets. An old man would stand at the gate and check us in, like at a hotel. We had better hope we were on the list. And there would be no rollerskating in heaven.

When I was four or five, I loved to watch the “Royaled Wedding,” a VHS recording of Prince Andrew and Princess Fergie’s wedding. I watched it over and over. It was during one such viewing that I turned to my other grandmother and asked her why she did not believe in Jesus. When she replied, I informed her that she should believe in Jesus so she wouldn’t go to hell. That did not go over very well. The Royaled Wedding may have been turned off at that point.

A few years later, I learned that heaven was going to be all about God, which sounded alright at first. Then my Sunday School teacher said, “Won’t it be great to sing praises to God forever?” And I started to dread it. I was afraid of death because I did not (and do not) want to spend forever singing cheesy Christian songs and listening to guitar guys everywhere play the same four chords. A friend of mine recently told me that growing up, he was taught that heaven would be just like church and he panicked. Heaven did not sound so good. And I began to wonder why I would want to go there if it just meant an eternal church service.

Heaven was supposed to be the perk of being a Christian. We were supposed to believe so we would live after we died. We were supposed to tell others so they could spend eternity with us and God not bad people and the devil. Heaven (or rather, not Hell) was our goal and purpose. Believing in Jesus was good for at least one thing- getting to the good place after we died.

At the beige church, my one and only stint in a Calvinist church, the rules of heaven were even more important. You had to be a Christian, a real, authentic Christian to go to heaven. And God had predestined us to either believe in him and go to heaven or not believe in him and go to hell. (Note- that is not what I believe, just what I was taught). Again, heaven and eternity caused chaos and panic inside me. What if I was not an authentic Christian? I had doubts, fears and skepticism and I was not always nice to people. What if all that pointed to an eternity spent in hell because I was not a part of this chosen group? I prayed dozens of times for Jesus to “come into my heart.” I figured that if I prayed it over and over, the odds would work in my favor and one of these prayers would stick. Rather than comforting me, life after death, eternity and heaven became more reasons to worry. 

The idea that any of us know the exact dimensions or rules of heaven and life after death is preposterous. Even people who have been dead for a few minutes and then are revived do not know exactly what heaven is like. Some people believe it is a rehabilitation of this earth and this world. Others believe it is an entirely different world. Some think it will be like the Philadelphia cream cheese commercials and we will all float around on clouds. I cannot even venture a guess. But, if what I read in the Bible is true, then it will be great. I do not believe there will be a forever praise and worship service. Or, if there is, I like to think God will let me skip that. But, we will know what God is like because we will see him. There will be no wars, fighting or meanness. There will not be any more sadness or death or pain or suffering. And after this week of my grandma’s death (she died while I was writing this post), I am looking forward to not having to experience sadness or pain. I do not know much about heaven. I just know that it would be ironic to spend our time worrying about the qualities and rules of a place that will not have worry or anxiety. Or rollerskating for that matter.