On the first Sunday of Lent, I asked the people attending the 8:45 service to draw a picture of heaven. After we had spent time on that, I asked whether we seemed to be living there now. The adults, especially, seemed to realize that we weren’t. That the world we lived in seemed very far from the world God created and wanted for us.
On this, the first week of Easter, it seems worthwhile to revisit this idea.
To a small child, Kennywood might look a bit like heaven. After all, it’s filled with junk food and fun things to do. I think I first visited Kennywood when I was five or six. It was the school picnic, and I went with my neighbor, Stacy, and her family. We started off in Kiddieland (we were kiddies, after all), and rode the Little Dipper and the airplanes. But, we moved on quickly. Stacy was the youngest of four kids, and her brothers and sister were a lot older than we were. It was their Kennywood school picnic, too, and they weren’t going to settle for the baby rides.
I remember vaguely being fascinated by all the rides, and all the amusements. We followed Stacy’s siblings around. They probably didn’t really appreciate having to chaperone us. Kennywood was advertising itself as “The Roller Coaster Capital of the World,” and we were too short to go on a single coaster. Except the Little Dipper. Which didn’t count, as far as they were concerned.
Finally, they found one ride that we could just barely go on: the Jackrabbit. It was (and still is) an old wooden roller coaster. Stacy shared a car with her sister; I sat in the car with their high-school age brother. The park attendants fixed the safety devices – old leather belts that fit loosely over the lap of the largest person in the car. And the ride began.
For those who don’t remember (or who have never ridden) the Jackrabbit – the roller coaster has a gimmick: a bump in the middle of the track, designed to make the car hop, like a jackrabbit. We hit the bump, and I flew. I was too little, so my weight wasn’t going to keep me in my seat. Nor was the leather strap, which was loose to begin with (I may have slid out of it). I know my body left the seat – I seem to recall Stacy’s brother grabbing me and pulling me back into the roller coaster. That might have been my imagination, but it didn’t matter. I was spooked.
The next year, I stayed pretty much in Kiddieland. And the year after that. In fact, I might have skipped the whole school trip to Kennywood for a few years. Because fear had set in, and no amount of teasing or cajoling was going to overcome it.
Of course, I was also denying myself the possibility of fun. The kids’ paradise of my first visit had disappeared.
When we look at our kids, one of the things that often impresses us is how innocent they are, and how quick they are to befriend others, or reach out with compassion to almost everyone they meet. Like five-year-old me, they hadn’t learned to fear yet. It’s true of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, too.
But, part of growing up is getting hurt, or scared, or both. Like Adam and Eve, we realize that we are vulnerable, and we do everything we can to cover that up. And, like me and roller coasters, we start to shy away from the things that seem too risky. We don’t help others, because we are afraid that they might become too dependent on us, or because they remind us of our own vulnerability. We don’t try new things, venture into new neighborhoods, meet new people, because we are afraid of the unknown. And, because we don’t know, we jump to judgements about them.
Like me thinking that all roller coasters are dangerous, just because of a bad experience when I was five.
Easter marks the victory over death. On Easter Day, Jesus literally showed us that we have nothing left to fear. And so every fear that we have – the fears that keep us from working towards the Kingdom of God – need not hold us back any longer.
God calls us to reach beyond our comfort zones. Jesus talked to those who were outcast, like the Samaritan woman at the well; he challenged temple authorities to consider the poor. He calls us to do the same, and to work towards justice for all. Too often, fear holds us back, and keeps us in the Kiddielands of our own creation.Easter reminds us that we need not fear. It should embolden us to take risks to pursue the Kingdom of God, and have faith that true heaven is even greater than we pictured it.