May 10, 2012

A Heavenly Reward

Decades ago I persuaded a high school friend of mine to investigate the Mormon Church and for several months she studied with missionaries, only to decide the teachings weren’t to her liking.  Then years later she visited me after we’d gone separate ways to college.  With a weekend of activities planned, I asked if she would mind a brief stop at a Kinko’s to get copies of a document that I needed for the next day.  It would only take a minute.

When we stepped into the copy shop, however, we noticed that there was only one worker behind the counter and two customers ahead of us.  The other customers—an elderly lady and her granddaughter—had the Kinko’s lady copying what I recognized to be a Book of Remembrance.  A Book of Remembrance is, for active members of the Mormon Church, a family history that has been painstakingly gathered and recorded by the person who possesses it and generally includes a detailed genealogy.  In the case of the elderly woman and her granddaughter, the copy-in-progress was meant as a gift and tender reminder of the importance of family.  However, because the pages were of odd size, the young women behind the counter was copying an impressive stack of paper by hand, one at a time.

The worker looked at me and asked what I needed.  I answered that I wanted twenty copies of a one-page document, all on standard paper.  She then turned to the grandmother and suggested that my job go first, since it would only take a few seconds to complete.  The older woman responded that the next person through the door would then get similar treatment and she would never get her print job done.  I understood the point and told the worker that I could leave my document and come back for copies later.

Once we left the store my friend said something that bothered me.  She said we’d just witnessed the primary reason she could never consider joining a church.  When I pressed her on the point, she answered, “You guys are so focused on personal salvation that you don’t give a shit (her words) about being kind to each other.”

Now, I know the criticism is unfair and exaggerated, but it serves to substantiate a point Jon Meachem recently made in a Time article entitled Rethinking Heaven.  The gist of his point is that the idea of heaven as a place where the righteous earn an eternal reward gives people license to not give a shit (my words now) about the people around them who might need help.  In my mind there are two unfortunate results of a traditional view of heaven:

  1. We can justify our lack of assistance to—and empathy for—those who suffer from adverse circumstances because we can say they will have a lasting reward someday if they’re only good enough to deserve it. 
  2. In justifying our inaction, we ignore the fact that we serve God best when are in the service of our brothers and sisters here in this life.  In essence, we leave it to God to bless others.  It becomes His responsibility, rather than our own.

As an alternative view to this, Meacham writes:
The scholarly redefinition of heaven as a manifestation of God’s love on earth has been illuminating, for it at once puts believers in closer proximity to the intent of the New Testament authors and should inspire the religious to open their arms more often then they point fingers.  Heaven thus becomes, for now, the reality one creates in the service of the poor, the sick, the enslaved, the oppressed.  It is not paradise in the sky but acts of selflessness and love that bring God’s sacred space and grace to a broken world suffused with tragedy.
To me, it’s no coincidence that the secular governments of Western Europe have stronger social safety nets than that of Middle Eastern countries and yes, the good ole US of A.  Where people believe poverty is just a temporary condition that can be resolved with good behavior and God’s blessing, there is a temptation to devote less attention to the matter.  But therein lies the rub.  In short, if we’re not working to bring a bit of heaven to the unfortunate souls around us, we don’t deserve the heavenly rewards we seek.  

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