When asked what Quakers believe about the after-life, my stock answer is that we are more concerned with this life and don’t worry much about what happens when it’s over. Within the past couple of weeks I have had to confront this question in different ways. The first was a conversation with my elder sister, who was shocked when I said I didn’t expect to meet our parents in heaven. I know that ‘s a comforting idea for people, and I didn’t want to destroy it, because my sister just lost her husband and is confident that he is waiting for her there. She said, ‘How can you live without hope?” I said that I lived with the hope of making this world a better place–the blessed community, the commonwealth of God. I don’t know what happens when this body gives out. My sister was not happy with my response, wondering how I had fallen so far from the Truth we grew up with.
The second encounter, a week later, was singing in the Gospel Choir and hearing Bobby Lewis talk about how the slaves survived the horrors of their life on earth by singing “There’s a better world coming bye and bye, way up in the sky.” I love Bobby and am always uplifted by his positive messages and, of course, by the music. Somehow, unlike the encounter with my sister, I didn’t feel pushed into an either-or place. Rather, with Bobby it’s both-and. I’m not at all uncomfortable singing about heaven, because I can hold the idea of heaven on earth. No argument.
The event that helped me bring it all together, really, was a memorial service for a friend’s mother, Anne. It occurred at the end of the Gospel Choir week, and the daughter asked if we could sing a number for her mother, who had also sung with us in the past. Bobby sang “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” Tears ran down my face as I remembered Bobby singing that song for my mother 14 years ago. I had been with Mom through her time of dying and had just returned home, grieving and vulnerable. That song reached deep inside me and gave me hope, just as it did last week. Not hope that I will see Mom again but that her spirit continues in some form, enlightening the world–my world, at least.
Also at Anne’s memorial, her husband read a poem by Mary Oliver, “When Death Comes.” Wow. I have read it over several times since and it continues to amaze me. Here’s one line:
“When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.”
So I will step out into this day refreshed and hopeful. Living toward heaven on earth.