"Death and Heaven" Children's Space talk
Death and Heaven - for Odyssey children's space group 7 September 2014
This is a talk that I gave to our 8-12 year olds. It necessarily leaves a whole lot out. I initially wanted to include some thoughts about some of the unhelpful ideas we've inherited from our tradition, such as the notion of a 'soul' as something separate from our body. And I did want to touch on the 'new heavens and new earth' imagery from scripture, but had to leave it out. This script might not say all you'd like about how eternal life and salvation go together. You'll just have to fill in the gaps yourself! Hopefully there's some useful pointers for talking about these big themes with the young people in your life.
You have been reflecting this term on life as a journey. And the thing with journeys, is that they all come to an end. Our life journeys end with our death. And for some people that's a really scary idea. Our faith can help us not to be afraid.
Brief discussion - have we known anyone who's died? Have we seen a dead body? What was that like for us?
Death and life after death are a bit of a mystery. The truth is that nobody really knows for sure what happens after a person dies. We know what we can see - there's a body without life in it. In our culture we either bury that body, and it rots into the earth, or it is burned and the ash is sprinkled somewhere. But we don't know for sure what we can't see – which is what has happened to the 'person' that we knew – their spirit, their life energy, their personality. Where have they gone? Are they anywhere?
Light a candle. Blow it out. What just happened to that flame?
Light the candle again. This time, look closely at it. Enjoy the light. Now, take that flame inside you. Close your eyes and make a picture of it. See it. Remember it. Open your eyes. Blow out the candle. Where is that flame now?
This isn't an exact picture at all, but imagine that candle flame is a human life. When we didn't pay attention to it, and we blew it out, it was just gone. But when we paid attention to it carefully, and held its light in our hearts, it didn't feel quite as disappeared as the first time. God sees us and pays attention to us all the time. God made us, and loves us, and holds us in God's heart - even when we're sleeping, or not thinking about God. So maybe you can start to see how, for God, a person dying is like blowing out a candle that God has looked at really carefully. In God, we aren't really 'gone.'
We who are Christians say that this 'me' that God sees and loves and knows doesn't just vanish when we die. Everything that makes me 'me' goes on living in and with God. Nothing, not even death, can separate us from God's love. The relationship between my self and God goes on and gets even better, because when I die I will see God face to face, instead of just the little glimpses of God that I get in this life on earth.
But, I won't be just floating around in space. One part of the Bible teaches that after we die, we are actually given a new life in a new body (1 Cor 15). This new self is still 'us', but it is as different from 'us-in-this-life' as a plant is different from a seed. A seed has to go into the ground and die – or break apart – for the plant to grow. In the same way, we also have to die, so that we can start the next part of our life, where we will have spiritual bodies that never die. Nobody knows what these spiritual bodies will be like. But here are some examples:
We looked at these drawn as pictures: Seed - flower/tree, caterpillar - butterfly, person.... ???, and teased out the connections.
So you can see that, even though it might be scary not to know exactly what's coming next, dying is a step into a better life. Of course it is very sad and hard for the people who are left behind. And it's also very sad when someone dies before they've had a chance to live their life here fully, such as a child or young person. We should not wish for death because our life here is a gift from God, and we have things to do and learn with these earth bodies. Our time here isn't just sitting in a waiting room, looking forward to when real life starts after we die. It's a very important part of our journey with God, where we learn to be in relationship, to care for others, to delight in the physical world of touch, sight, smell and sound, to accept limits and suffering. This life is all we can really know for sure, so we need to grasp hold of it completely, and live as though it's all we have, without wishing to be somewhere else. But when our time comes, it doesn't have to be lonely or frightening. Rather than an endless darkness or nothingness, death can be seen as a doorway. A threshold. And God is with us the whole way.
Why do we believe these things about death? How do we know?
At Easter we remember how Jesus died, and then came back from the dead. We call this 'resurrection.' His friends saw him again, touched him, talked with him, ate with him, and they have passed their stories on to us. And what's more, not just those who knew him when he was alive. Even after the first disciples had all died, people kept having experiences of Jesus. Not with their physical eyes and ears and hands any more. But in their hearts, and spirits. People still have these experiences now.
We believe that Jesus' resurrection is not just something that Jesus did. It's something that we will all do as we follow in his footsteps.
But where is all this happening?
Some people talk about heaven, as though it's a beautiful place, somewhere above the clouds. But let's press pause for a moment on that idea and think about a couple of things...
- what do astronauts see when they go up above the clouds, and into space? Do they get to heaven? Would they get to heaven if they travelled far enough and fast enough?
- where is God? (Everywhere!)
The important thing to remember about 'heaven' is that it's not a place like places we visit on earth – or even the moon or Mars. We can't get there by travelling. Heaven might not be a place at all. Maybe it's a bit like what happens when we fall asleep and dream...we stay in one place, but our dreams take us to all sorts of different places and all sorts of weird and wonderful things happen. Maybe life in heaven is a bit like life in the land of dreams, only it's really us, and we're awake the whole time?
Whatever we can say about heaven is mostly guesses, but what we can trust is that heaven is a way of being with God all the time. I personally hope that we will also be with those we have loved in this life, and that there will be a way of recognising each other, and enjoying each other's company again. Beyond that, I can't really imagine it. The Bible has pictures, such as a throne, and people all dressed in white worshipping God, but we have to remember that these are just pictures, to try and describe something that can't be imagined with our human minds. Can the caterpillar imagine its life as a butterfly?
One last question – is this life with God, life after death, for everyone, or just Christians?
Christians have different answers to this question. Some people say that these good things that I've just described are only for those who follow Jesus in this life. Others say that in the end, everyone will get the chance to benefit from Jesus' resurrection. Either way, that rests with God, and I don't have to know or decide whether other people get to go to heaven or not.
What I do think is that the kind of life I have after I die has something to do with the way I've lived my life on earth. So what I need to pay attention to is this life. To living it as fully and as lovingly as I can. When I'm dying, I want to look forward to what's coming next, because I already love God and want to be with God. The good thing about knowing God in this life is that, even though I can't see round the corner of my own death, I'm not afraid to walk round it because I've learned that God is always with me and will be there to welcome me.
After this talk, the children engaged in various reflection stations and labyrinths that helped them to pray and ponder further on some of the main ideas. One of the stations included a simplified version of this modern parable 'Acornology' (click if you want to read it.)