John Bennison Words and Ways | 2011 | June

Moving Heaven and Hell

[To read and/or print a pdf version of this Commentary click here.]


Gospel music is one of the most telling sources when looking for what are often considered “traditional” religious attitudes in the American landscape.  When it comes to the notions of “passing on” or “crossing over,” past divine judgment to a place of eternal rest called heaven, perhaps there’s no better example than Fred Rich’s tune, Jordan.  The last Pathways gathering enjoyed watching the late Johnny Cash and Emmylou Harris perform the number, and you can view it you here. You’ll find passing references to some of the phrases in the tune in the Commentary that follows.


Commentary: Moving Heaven and Hell

You load sixteen tons, and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
St. Peter, don’t you call me, ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store.

 Sixteen Tons, Singer/Songwriter Merle Travis, 1946

Though many years have now passed, I still remember getting the phone call from a distraught parishioner while I was out of town on a family summer vacation.  The call concerned another family in our community who’d been loosely affiliated with the church.  The day before, their 16-year old son had been thrown from a car and killed in a terrible accident on Kirker Pass.

I piled the kids in the back seat and raced home, arriving just as the sun was setting.  I quickly changed into clerical garb to look the proper part, and dashed over to the local mortuary where a viewing was already in progress.

I found the family in the anteroom, with Joe, the father, sitting in a ghostly trance, as if stunned in disbelief.  He just stared at the stiff corpse laid out before him.  His own boy, his Kevin, the apple of his eye, his pride and joy, his life and what now seemed to consume him as his whole reason for living, was gone.

“I’m so sorry.  I’m so, so sorry,” were the only words I could offer.

I’d already learned that hard lesson that when words fail us, sometimes it’s best to remain silent.  The emptiness, the nothingness is more telling and truthful than any platitudes or inadequate expressions of sympathy that – no matter how sincere –could not possibly begin to plumb the depths of heart-wrenching grief.

A few days later in the packed sanctuary, I stood beside the pall-covered casket, with Joe and Joanne and the rest of their family in the front pew.  Joe looked no different than when I’d seen him at the wake.  He looked empty and expressionless.

When it came time to say a few words, I still had few words to say, and I said so.  I certainly didn’t try to make sense out of something that made no sense.  There are no reasons to adequately explain why accidents happen through human error, other than the obvious; any more than why the capricious and indiscriminate acts of natural disasters, or the inevitable consequence of our own mortality, can periodically turn people’s lives upside down.

Though you hear personal testimonies all the time about people who credit a “miraculous” save to God’s favor and blessing, it leaves the obvious question unanswered about those others in the same circumstances who suffer a different fate.

Personally, I do not believe in a kind of God that intervenes in the natural order of things, or manipulates the consequences of human cause and effect; particularly when one gets into the thorny questions about those who would be deemed worthy or unworthy of God’s favor.  But strangely enough, when the vicissitudes of life have done their worst, we tend to defer an explanation of that which is inexplicable anyway to something we know even less about; namely, the “hereafter” and a place called heaven.

Now, they say no one ever gets over the death of a child, and in Joe’s case this was certainly true.  Many years later, when he was dying of cancer, I would sometimes visit with him in his home, so his wife could take a break.  We’d talk about this and that for a while, about his loving wife, his daughters and their hopes and plans for their bright futures, etc.

When he tired, I’d offer to say a prayer before leaving.  I wouldn’t pray for a miraculous cure for Joe’s terminal disease; only that we both be reassured of an abiding divine presence all our days, and beyond.  Then, before I left, he’d always come around to that ever-present, gnawing emptiness he still felt for that devastating loss of his boy that had left such a hole in his heart so many years before.

For Joe, the consequences of his terminal disease was a toss up between the impending loss and separation of all that he still loved in this life, and the anticipation of “crossing over” the billows of that cold Jordan River, and being reunited with his boy, his Kevin.

That’s one of those assumptions, almost taken for granted by many folks, without question or much introspection; for the comfort and reassurance it may provide in the mean-time. While I may not share the same view or expectation about that which neither of us know with any certainty, there’s no need for me to try to relieve others of their own hope, their belief, or what I usually regard as what is sometimes such wonderful mythic language with which anyone might try to express the inexpressible.

But if one were to take just such a notion literally, it does leave me to just wonder about this:  If Joe’s son was waiting for him on the other side, standing knee deep in the chilly waters with welcoming arms outstretched, would Joe look a lot better than he did in those final days of his life here on earth?

And, if Joe finally did lay eyes on him again, would his boy appear to him as, say, the day he was born? Or, maybe he’d be united with his Kevin as a young boy, like the day he caught his first fish.  Or no, perhaps it was that regretful day he first taught his teen to drive?  Or the last time he remembered laying eyes on his lifeless body?  Which Kevin would be waiting for him?

If Joe finally did lay eyes on him again, which Kevin would be waiting for him?

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