Where Do We Go When We Die?


Rev. Douglas Taylor

Special Music just before the sermon: Billy Joel’s Lullaby (Goodnight My Angel) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dcnd55tLCv8&ab_channel=billyjoelVEVO

It is, I trust, an iconic image for us, easy to call to mind. The singer is at the bedside of their young child, singing a lullaby – a calming image of love and care. My spouse and I spent years when our children were young with this nightly ritual of singing them to sleep with lullabies. It is a beloved memory for me.

Today is Mother’s Day – the day we celebrate and honor mothers. I would offer a slight nuance to my focus under that heading – let us honor the nurturing role. Who in your life offered that nurture to you over your younger years? In most cases it will have been your mother. But life is complex. The one who gave you life may not have been the nurturer of your life. Yet we have all had nurturers in our lives or we would not be here.

To some degree on another we all had someone in our lives whose care and love has been woven deep into who we are and who we have become. And that is the experience I invite you to call to mind this morning – the one whose care and love has been woven deep into who you are and who you have become.

A year ago, my mother died and I’ve had time to consider the impact of losing someone who has been deeply important to me, whose loss I am still grieving.

I was reading an article recently https://www.sciencefriday.com/articles/brain-grief/ about grief and the brain. I was struck by the way the author talked about the neural connections in our brains that form when we bond with people the way a baby bonds with their mother. There are changes in our brain when we develop such bonds. When I say, poetically, that we have people whose care and love have been woven into who we are, it seems neuroscience offers a similar description. Such relationships shape our neural pathways. We need nurturers in our lives.

My spouse and I are new grandparents. Our own children are now grown. It has been a while since we sang lullabies to our little ones. And while we are not singing our grandchild to sleep each night, some lullaby singing has returned to our lives. And of course, if I am to speak of lullabies, I must also mention the companion activity at bedtime for children: asking big questions.

Here we are at the end of the day. We’ve had a story and perhaps a small glass of milk, whatever the usual pieces are to the bedtime ritual. And for many it is a time for children to ask big questions. Why is the sky blue? Where do we go when we die? Can I have a pet triceratops? Why does it get light and then dark and then light again? Where do babies come from? Why do we have two eyes and two ears and two nose holes but only one mouth?

Often after fielding a few of these questions, we would gently move into the singing of lullabies.

Goodnight, my angel

Time to close your eyes

And save these questions for another day

Billy Joel has said he wrote the lyrics to this song for his 7-year-old daughter in response to her bedtime questions; in particular, the question: “Where do we go when we die?”

I think it was very astute of Mr. Joel to recognize in that moment the importance of that question, to understand what was really at stake. Where do we go when we die? Last month I delivered a sermon all about heaven and included the various descriptive answers that might arise in talking about heaven: the clouds, the harps, the saints and angels, the theology of being good or being saved – all that. But Billy Joel recognized that what his child was asking for would not have been found in that sermon.

I think I know what

You’ve been asking me

I think you know

What I’ve been trying to say

This question, “Where do we go when we die?” often gets mislabeled as a question about beliefs and faith. Children at bedtime are usually not seeking theology. His daughter asked “Where do we go when we die?” And he answered

Wherever you may go

No matter where you are

I never will be far away

It was never a question about beliefs or heaven. It was a question about love and loss. Where do we go when we die? Where will you go, the child who loves you asks; where will you be when I am left without you and you are gone. (I never will be far away.)

As the parent in the relationship, I want to offer assurance that everything will be alright, that I’ll always be here for my children. I can understand how some parents will say, “Oh, don’t worry about that.” I understand the desire to brush such a question away – even from our adult children, “Don’t worry about that for now.” That dismissiveness is borne of a desire to reassure our children.

But as the child in the relationship, I want to know what I am going to do when my mother has died. I want to know how I am going to keep going when she’s not there as that steady, reliable presence. I want to know how to manage when I am in need of comfort and the one I used to turn to for comfort is gone. I don’t want to be told to not worry. I want to know what will happen to the connection, to the bond between us, to the neural pathways that have grown familiar with your presence.

Did you have conversations like this as the parent or as the child? Can you still have such conversations with the important people in your life? I count myself among the lucky ones in life. I was the child of a woman who did not shy away from such questions. Goodness, that woman would engage unabashedly in topics of sex and death, politics and social issues all day long if we asked her too. As a result, I heard her answers to questions like this, “Where do we go when we die?”

My mother’s answers were about love – God’s love, the love of her parents, that transcendent and transformative power often called God but may be better known as love. Where do we go when we die? We go back to love. 

Billy Joel, in an interview from 2016, shared a little more about the experience which led to this song we’ve been focused on. He was putting his child to bed that night and she asked him that question “Where do we go when we die?” Here’s what he said in the interview:

“What I told her was, ‘After you die, you go into other people’s hearts and they take you with them through their lives, and then you pass that along to your children.’ She seemed content with that answer. It was kind of a scary question, but the answer made sense to her.” https://www.songfacts.com/facts/billy-joel/lullabye-goodnight-my-angel

This resonates with me strongly. Frankly I was a little surprised to find that he put it that way, I mean, he is just a singer celebrity! Yet, he so effortlessly produced that answer, an answer I find compelling and nuanced enough for my Process Theology loving brain and for my grief-soaked heart. When we are gone, we are not really gone because we continue in each other’s hearts. That may be what heaven is. I don’t know.

I’ll dip into a little theology here, even though I said earlier that it’s not the point of the question. I’m going to share a little anyway. In process theology, we say the building blocks of reality are not things like atoms and molecules. Instead, it is the events, the happenings that matter most. The interactions of the things create the whole. If you could pick apart a chair, atom by atom, the argument goes, you would end up with a pile of atoms and never find the chair. The chair is about the relationship of the atoms together, it is the interplay of the pieces that make it that chair.

So it is with you and me. I am not merely the atoms currently comprising my body. I am made of the relationships and interactions at the atomic level and at the social level. And I came out of the earth, I grew inside my mother, I was nurtured by her and others over decades. All of that is part of who I am.

For me this is about my mother. But this is not specifically a Mother’s Day sermon, it is a sermon about grappling with the grief and loss of those precious people in our lives whose care and love has been woven deep into who we are and who we have become – and who are not gone. For you that may be a different nurturer. For me it is about my mother. I would not be here if not for her – in so many senses beyond the merely biological logic of it. Her care and love for me has been imbued into my being. She is part of me.

The water’s dark
And deep inside this ancient heart
You’ll always be a part of me

And though she is gone, I carry her with me still and she is not gone. The people we most love and who love us in return are woven into our identities, our being. The interactions and encounters change us and help shape our becoming.

In our story this morning, The Tenth Good Thing about Barney, the father says, “Things change in the ground… The ground changes things.” He was talking about seeds turning into flowers and beloved pets who have died turning into the soil to help grow the plants and trees.

What I am trying to say is that love does the same sort of change work that the ground does. Love takes the relational interactions of my living and transform them into me. And the people who have nurtured me, the one whose care and love has been woven deep into who I am and who I have become, they are part of me. And even when they are gone, they can never really be gone.

Those who have love you and are now gone, are still part of you, are still working their change on you, shaping who you are and who you will become. And even when they are gone, you carry them in your heart and they are not gone.

I carry you in my heart, we say. The neuroscientists say our brains carry the memories of the bond. Process Theology suggests the relational interactions between us help comprise what it means to be me. I carry you in my heart.

Someday your child may cry
And if you sing this lullaby
Then in your heart
There will always be a part of me

To whom do you sing lullabies? In whom will you continue on?

Here (touch heart) is where we go when we die.

In a world without end,

May it be so.