A weird thing about God I’ve been thinking about for 16 years is a passage from a John Piper (a famous conservative pastor/theologian/lite misogynist) book where he talks about an elderly couple retiring together to a beach house. The book was given to me in college by someone from his publishing company for free for like, proselytizing reasons. Piper talks about a couple spent their nights taking long walks along the shoreline, collecting the beautiful and unique shells they found along the way. When they died, they arrived at the pearly gates with their seashell collection in tow, to offer up to God as a kind of show and tell about what they did on earth. “See God? Look at these cool shells!”
There are bigger things to accomplish with a life than collecting seashells. We all know this. It’s supposed to make you feel a bit empty and embarrassed for them that they thought they were special or good people or something. I was young and very naive and a perfectionist, so I bought into the morality tale of it big time. I’ve slowly realized that this scenario is something I remember at least once every few days.
I’ve been very afraid of making the same mistake and having a silly little life. I should be a poor missionary or doctor or nurse and wrap myself up in helping people 24-hours a day. And whatever else besides this weird bohemian life would have to be a 24-hour affair because the only way I could realistically do something so unnatural is to surround myself with it 24/7 and let it brainwash me. This is why sometimes people like me becomes nuns, they’re so afraid of not having enough faith they have to put themselves into a situation where they have nothing else to do every day but work at having faith.
Total immersion, at least for a short time, is a good way to pretend you are capable of doing something that is not actually, at all, what you are supposed to be doing.
So I know that it’s not for me. But admitting this makes the fear grow stronger. Even my hero, Mary Oliver, asks me what I am going to have to show for this one wild and precious life.
I’m such a perfectionist do-gooder that I am sorry to say I only just today realized I have been letting John Piper’s story scare me all these years and this isn’t remotely close to the vision of God I think exists. I am so scared to disappoint Piper’s God that it took this huge chunk of time to occur to me that this vengeful God is not someone I believe exists.
I just don’t for a second, in any possible universe, believe there is an all-knowing creature who is going to scoff at me in the afterlife.
When I think about how I should react in a given situation, I think about how I probably will act, how I have the energy to act, and how my highest self would act. If I had the privilege to always be well rested and well loved and secure in myself and my safety, I would always act the way my highest self wants me to. I would be understanding and empathetic and supportive and loving. If someone cut me off in traffic I would feel a little genuine sadness (not pity) that they are in a bad place and it’s affecting them and their ability to do something other than act badly towards others. And then I would forget.
God has to be like my highest self. If you’re at least a few milleniums full of years old, it seems so impossible that you wouldn’t have evolved to this place where all your needs are met and you are wise. I can’t imagine an all-loving, all-understanding God trying to get pot shots off at her beautiful creatures about how they’ve spent their golden years collecting sea shells.
I imagine that couple getting to heaven. And a sort of embrace occurs. And maybe the couple does feel sheepish about their shells. Maybe it’s a moment where they realize it may have been more important for them to spend their retirement volunteering or doing good somewhere. But no one being the best version of themselves would use this knowledge as an opportunity to lean into the couple’s regret and insecurity. I think in that situation God would probably remind them of all the good they have done and how we are just all doing the best we can. And then they would go forth to heaven and they would do better because they would be so supported and loved and healthy.
I feel so good that this whole thought process surfaced today.
I feel so good that when my thought creeps up to this memory I can use the reasoning skills I’ve been given to reject this idea as a possible consequence for not moving through life with more guilt and less pleasure.
It feels so light and so free to not have to believe in punishment.
I can’t wait for us all to have a beautiful redemption story and all the parts of our humanity are uncovered and seen and forgiven.
This feels so much better than the story I was given.