Looking up

Not long ago we were walking and my gaze went upward to the canopy of trees overhead. At the same time as I was enjoying the overhead view, I was aware that looking up while walking was affecting my balance. I had to redirect my vision back to my own level to keep myself from staggering. It was an experience that I have had thousands of times before. I think I’ve been looking up towards the sky all of my life. Among my earliest memories is looking up to see an airplane as I heard the sound of its passing. The prevailing winds in my hometown meant that most of the town was two to three miles off of the approach end of the prevailing runway. The result was that the lowest flying airplanes we heard and saw were often heading to land at our airport and my father was the manager of the airport. He also was the pilot who flew the most in and out of that airport. I learned, at a very early age, to identify the airplanes he flew and knew that seeing his airplane come towards the airport meant that he would soon be home.

One of the things I notice about our new home is that I don’t look up at the night sky quite as often as was the case in our South Dakota Home. In South Dakota, we lived at the edge of town. In fact our home was outside of the city limits until it was annexed during the last few years we lived there. Our neighborhood didn’t have street lights. The view of the night sky from our yard was glorious. I loved looking up and identifying stars and planets. Here, in our new home, our backyard is smaller. There are more lights from neighbors’ homes and street lights. And there are clouds in the sky more often. The combination has resulted in a slight change in my behavior when it comes to looking at the sky.

Still, I look up quite a bit. Planes landing at Skagit Regional Airport often fly over town on their way. Fighter jets from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island make turns over town. And the summer weather has meant fewer clouds in the sky.

When we look up at the night sky from a relatively dark place, we can literally see trillions of miles. We can see light that has traveled across the galaxy and even farther across the universe. Some of that light has been traveling for thousands of years. Scientists tell us that the unaided human eye can see a supergiant star in the constellation Cassiopeia that is a little over 4000 light years away. That is a lot of distance.

When we look down at our feet, however, we can’t see very far at all. The roots of the grass in the lawn are just a few inches beneath our feet, but we cannot see them unless we take time to dig and even then we rarely go more than a short distance. I dug a few holes for fence posts this spring. The deepest was probably only about 3 feet deep. Unless I visit a cave that has been opened to tourists, I rarely get a glimpse at what is beneath the surface of the ground. I can see a bit deeper into the water, but I’ve never been in a vehicle that could travel deep underwater. My eyes have only seen things near the surface.

It probably should not surprise us that people think of heaven as being up in the sky and hell as being down under the earth. Those images have been a part of human thought for millennia. No doubt it has something to do with burial customs. Many cultures have cared for the bodies of deceased loved ones by placing them in the ground. Burial keeps above ground scavengers such as rats and birds from eating the body. Burial keeps the smell of decomposition from reaching the surface. Once buried, the body of the loved one can no longer be seen, but people continue to imagine what has happened to that person. Because the presence of breathing is one of the ways we know that a person is alive, it is easy to imagine that the breath - the spirit - of the loved one has left the body. The spirit goes into the air like the wind that we feel. The body goes into the ground where we know it decomposes. Imagery of heaven and hell come to mind.

I am no expert on what happens to us when we die. Although I’ve had my share of experiences with those who are dying, I can only say that death is a mystery. I don’t know exactly what it will feel like to die. I don’t know what will happen to me after I die. My faith, however. convinces me that death is not the end. That same faith, however, does not lead me to the images of Dante’s Inferno. It does not make me imagine streets paved in gold or angels playing harps while floating among the clouds. When I think of life beyond death I don’t think in terms of place or of the physical surroundings. I think of love that never dies. I think of relationships that are more precious than anything that can be owned.

As such, I guess I’m not a very good preacher of heaven and hell. I find no reason to come up with frightening images to scare non believers. I am content with sharing the stories of our people about the love of God.

There are a couple of old small cars that drive around Mount Vernon that are painted with expressions of the faith of the owner. I know they have the same driver because it is someone our son has met. One of those cars has a large sign attached to the roof that says, “Hell is real.” I’m pretty sure the driver of the car could give a description of how that person imagines hell to be. I suspect that the description would involve fire and probably devils with pointed tails and pitchforks. I don’t find seeing the cars to inspire me. Looking at the night stars is much more inviting. For now, I think I’ll keep looking up.

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