NOW I LAY ME DOWN TO SLEEP
In my reading for this issue I came across an assertion, often encountered before, that religion was born to answer these two questions from human cultures in all times and places: (1) why do things happen as they do; and (2) what happens to us when we die?
What does happen to us when we die? I kept a little clipping from the Des Moines Register from May 18, 2006, telling how on the day before the state of Texas executed a man who had killed a mother and her son in 1997.
The fellow’s last words were to his mother and to God: “Momma, stay strong. Lord, forgive me for my sins because here I come. A cocky faith? A strong faith? An unfounded faith?
I have no hard data for it but I am willing to bet that there are not many people on this planet who believe that death is the last word on our lives. The belief in life after death is certainly endemic among the common people here in this country - even among those who still call God “the man upstairs”.
A lot of people grew up kneeling by their bed and saying, “if I should die before I wake I pray the Lord my soul to take.” The soul here seems to be defined as sort of like a mysterious little glob of something residing deep within us, and when we die then God like reaches down and grabs it and brings it up to heaven to be with Jesus.
Heaven! For those of us raised as good little Christian boys and girls, it’s hard to imagine a universe without a heaven, or some place at least where we will keep on going forever like spiritual energizer bunnies. But when we take a look at the universe as the big telescopes are showing us today, it is even harder to imagine where that heaven might be.
A fourth dimension, perhaps? Beyond time and space, even beyond the far edge of the big bang? Do we hover for a time just on the other side of the veil, able to see and to communicate with our loved ones left behind? Do we “go toward the light”?
Evidence for life after death is presented by a community of scholars and thinkers who study the reports of people who “die and then come back to life”-Near Death Experiences (NDEs).
A man named Kevin Williams is a member of that community and on his web site he makes the startling claim that “NDEs will soon prove the survival of consciousness after death without any doubt and this will bring greater love and unity to the world.”
According to a September 8, 2008 article in Time, “a fellow at New York City's Weill Cornell Medical Center, Dr. Sam Parnia, is one of the world's leading experts on the scientific study of death.
Last week Parnia and his colleagues at the Human Consciousness Project announced their first major undertaking: a 3-year exploration of the biology behind "out-of-body" experiences.
One hoped-for result of the study is to gather solid scientific evidence that consciousness continues even after the brain stops functioning. What they have learned so far is that immediately after the heart stops beating and the blood stops flowing, “the cells go into a kind of a frenzy to keep themselves alive. And within about five minutes or so they start to damage or change.”
What people who have had a NDE tell us is that during this time when the heart has stopped and there seems to be no brain activity, they still were conscious somehow, and they can report back to us just what was going on “in their mind”.
Maybe we’ll have to change the prayer to “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. And if my heart and blood stop flowing, I know the Lord will keep me going.”
Fairly lily-white was my young world. As a child up through 7th grade my school and town seemed to have no people of color, and my only glimpses of African-Americans were those I saw along the main road north into Grand Rapids.
That changed the moment we moved to a town where many black families dotted the countryside.
Some of the best athletes and prettiest girls were black. Not having been “carefully taught” that they were “less than” or inferior, I accepted them as they were and enjoyed their friendship.
One of the best things about our new home was that it was surrounded by lots of fruit farms and a boy could make good money picking cherries and apples and blueberries. I especially liked picking blueberries, and early August would find me standing in a row of Rubles (7 cents a pound) or Jerseys (6 cents a pound) talking to the people around me or throwing berries at unsuspecting pickers.
The first day on the job I became aware of an older black man named Chester. I grew to like him so much that I would try to locate him on my arrival and then I would start picking the back side of the bush he was on, as together we worked our way down the row. What I remember most was Chester’s hair: short, well-groomed, salt and pepper. He had the most kindly smile and bright, and he had the most interesting tales to tell. My years of “berrying” were made more enjoyable picking with Chester.
The years passed and after college and seminary I moved far away. But one day I was back home in Michigan walking with my wife down the street in South Haven, and we stopped to get a “soft” ice cream cone. I turned from the counter and out of the corner of my eye I saw a very disheveled black man with stooped shoulders and the reddened and teary eyes of an alcoholic.
An old remembrance came rushing back and I looked closer.
“Chester!”, I cried. “Chester, is that you?” The man turned and started walking away. I had an impulse to run after him, but my better sense told me that he had somehow recognized me too, and his sudden shame would only be increased if I did.
But as he shuffled away down the street, I watched him go with a deep mix of feelings. What had happened to my old berrying friend in the years gone by? Or had I just seen him in his brighter days, when he was able to get by on the little income from buckets of Rubles and Jerseys? What had been his life during the winter months? Why had he been picking blueberries anyway, with the meager income that must have provided?
A black girl in my class was in many activities, including the Student Council. It had seemed to me that Jeannie was one of the more popular girls in school. But years later, she has yet to attend a class reunion. Instead she talks about the subtle but insidious prejudice she often encountered during her high school years.
I was stunned to hear her story! I had no idea, no idea at all. Maybe that is the way racism shows up in my life: not noticing, not seeing, not paying attention. How many other instances of prejudice and bigotry went sailing right before my eyes but I never saw? How many times had I said a word or glanced a glance that was pity but not love. How often did I fail to do what I could, to reduce the residue of racism still clinging to my soul? (p. 7) “None of us are clean”, Denzel
Washington’s character said in the movie, Glory. But we can get more clean as we get more clear about the subtle ways we are part of the problem.
Raven is the pen name used by previous editor of the printed Universalist Herald, Rich Koster.