It is summer.
Like the season itself, there is no ambiguity in this statement. It is a fact as plain and self-evident as the sun that now rises straight up to the top of the sky or the green tomatoes waiting on their vines.
In one of those rare congruences, the academic calendar and the moon calendar and every kind of calendar we might consult in this house agree that it is now summer. And most convincing of all, the fireflies are back. In the evening, I can see small, dancing pinpricks of light everywhere I turn. They flash and flash, and I imagine a crowd of fairies practicing their nighttime photography.
All month long, I have been tempted to use one particular word. I am tempted by the low humidity and the cool breeze. I am tempted by the first blooms on the rose bushes I planted in March. I am tempted by the orderly lushness of the green garden. Broccoli and carrot tops and kale exploding along their neat rows.
I want to say, but then I do not say: It is perfect.
I talk myself down from that word every time. Because tomorrow it will be hot or because the beetles will begin chewing on the rose leaves any day now or that lettuce will surely bolt (and turn bitter) in a week.
But I have confused perfection and permanence. Whoever told me that perfect is only perfect if it lasts?
My son and I share a June birthday. He is, has always been, a good and perfect gift. I can remember him at six months old and how I wanted him to just stay. Like that. Forever. I had already seen my daughter, my firstborn, turn from fussy baby to fierce toddler to fiery preschooler, and I had celebrated and mourned each beautiful transition. But I wasn’t sure I had the energy to do it all again. I thought my chill little baby boy was just perfect. Today, he is eight, and that, too, seems just about perfect.
But perfect isn’t permanent.
We celebrated our birthday with a canoe ride down the Brandywine River. The Brandywine River is as sweet and magical as it sounds. We paddled, we drifted, we observed the round stones of the riverbed through a few shallow feet of clear water, and I watched the back of my little boy’s head. From where I sat at the rear of the boat, I could hear him whispering over and over, “This is amazing. This is just great.”
This is perfect, I wanted to say. But I didn’t.
I used to think that earth was the place of imperfection and heaven the place of perfection. I used to think that this life was imperfect and death was the door toward perfect. I used to think that this world was change and impermanence and that other world? That’s where everything stays the same, forever.
But I no longer think it is quite so neat. I no longer believe the lines are so thickly drawn. And this is good news.
Today, I think that the kingdom of heaven Jesus spoke of so powerfully is more like a river. And that river is breaking out in deserts all over this place. And in so many corners of my shifting, changing life.
And I am determined. When perfect bubbles up, I will no longer avert my eyes. I will no longer bury it in a flurry of doubt and pessimism (it won’t last, it isn’t real, nothing is ever perfect).
Instead, I will dive in. I will say, this river is leading me home.
I often have a face in mind when I write out words in this space. To be honest, it’s usually my own. When most of me is stuck in boredom, doubt, or depression some small part of me still sees the truth. I write to remind myself how beautiful life is. How good God is. And how near he is.
Today I have a face in mind, but it isn’t my own. Technically, it’s not a face at all but a voice – the voice I heard on NPR yesterday morning. A young man spoke of how he found Christianity but eventually gave it up because he couldn’t bring himself to believe that those who reject Christ will be tortured for all eternity.
And my heart broke.
I wished I could put both hands on his shoulders, look him in the eyes and say, “You’re giving up Jesus because of a theological position not even all Christians accept? Oh, honey, don’t do that. Trust me. You don’t want to do that.”
I can still remember my shock as a young woman, sitting down to lunch at the Benedictine monastery where I worked, when I overheard the conversation of two visitors sitting a few seats away. “Won’t people be surprised when they get to heaven and see Hitler there, too,” one woman said.
Personally, I will be very surprised if it turns out she’s right, but, today, I am less shocked at the image of Hitler in heaven than I am awed by this woman’s embrace of God’s very big love.
I also remember my shock, that same year, when a fellow church-goer admitted he didn’t think babies who die automatically go to heaven.
Clearly, we Jesus-followers don’t always see eye to eye.
Usually, I’m okay with this. I tend to agree with Augustine that if the Bible leads its reader to be more loving then the Bible has done its job. Augustine isn’t saying that accurate interpretation doesn’t matter, only that it’s okay if we get a little lost on our journeys as long as we arrive at our destination.
As someone who feels at least a little lost, most of the time, I like this idea.
At least, I did, until my daughter stood at the bus stop surrounded by our neighbors and said this Out Loud: “I wonder if Dr. Seuss is in heaven or hell?”
It was Dr. Seuss’s birthday, the kids were geared up for a celebration, but they also knew that Dr. Seuss was no longer among the living. I suppose one thought led to another, and suddenly my own daughter was broadcasting a question that didn’t reflect my own spiritual preoccupations at all.
I was mortified. Here I had imagined myself a Christian unconcerned with guarding the borders of who’s in and who’s out, but my own unconcern left a theological hole that my daughter filled in for herself.
So now, as hard as it is, and as comfortable as I remain with theological diversity, I know I owe my daughter a little more. I owe that young man on NPR a little more.
I want them both to know that whether you are blinded by God’s love or by his justice you are welcome in God’s family. I want them both to know that I’ve wandered to a spot somewhere in the middle. I think when Jesus said in Matthew 10:28 God would destroy both body and soul in hell that destroy means what it sounds like it means. Not eternal torment but destruction. An end. Justice.
In other words, I believe in this good news about hell: there is a place where evil will be confined and where it will be destroyed.
And the really good news? God’s love is big. Very, very big. I may doubt we’ll meet Hitler in heaven, but I’m sure we’ll be surprised at the size of the gathering. Because God’s love? Well, it chases us down. It pursues us. And frankly, where most of us are concerned, my money’s on God.
“And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.”
Ephesians 3: 17,18