I woke up Tuesday and I knew. It was time to get a haircut. That’s the way it is with most men, I think. Suddenly you can’t put it off anymore, it has to be done this day. On the way to the barbershop, I tried to guesstimate how many haircuts I have had in my life. Hmmmm, let’s see, a haircut every 4 or 5 weeks maybe. So if you live to be 90 that’s about 900 haircuts in your lifetime, including the last one you get at the funeral home. I think they give you one when you die, don’t they?
I’ve been going to the same barber for the last 20 years or so. His name is Al. He was born in Italy but he long ago lost an accent. As he cuts my hair, he’s able to talk about anything—social media, world events, the economy, grandchildren, religion, politics. He’s a really smart guy.
Of course the topic of the election came up, and we both agreed that we’ve had enough. “It’s easy to get depressed,” he said. “These politicians, they forget what really matters. Our lives are short.” It’s about taking care of one another and our world. To have peace. To live good lives. To share our love with our family and our neighbors. To pass a better world onto our children.
“The world today…” Al said, “I don’t know what’s gonna happen.”
It was depressing to talk about the election, and so I told him about my haircut guesstimate, and he laughed. “My grandson told me I can rest when I get to heaven because everyone there has a special haircut angel who just touches your head and it gets perfect. And if you don’t have hair anymore it all comes back, too.”
Children naturally look to the future with optimism. At a children’s Mass I asked kids about heaven. All these hands went up, no doubts about it. How do you get in? "Well”, said one little girl, "God just kisses you and says, 'Welcome aboard.' " What’s it like when you get there?, I asked. One boy said: “I think it’s gonna be like the most perfect place in the universe because God’s there and he won’t let there be anything bad, like on earth where there’s all these bad things here, and you can just sit with him in the garden and even take a nap with him. And I’ll just be free, to do whatever I want, jumping on the clouds, I’ll be doing cannonballs on the sky.”
And then they grow up, and life gets a lot more complicated, and a lot less certain.
I was recently speaking with a young man, a former student—one of those ‘millennials’. They’re up for grabs on Tuesday, and they are known to have little confidence about the future, problems with commitment, and issues with religion. He was telling me about his girlfriend---with whom he is head-over-heels in love. I could tell that he is actually considering the long-term with her, which is a little surprising, because up until now he didn’t seem to believe in commitment.
It was so good to see his eyes light up when he spoke about her.
And somehow in the conversation he turned the tables on me: he asked me why I became a priest. It’s a question I've been asked many times before, and the answer is complicated and can be lengthy because it has a lot to do with... well, just about everything, about life and death and everything in between and beyond.
But I could tell there was something else behind the question. It wasn't really about me. 'Why do you ask?', I said. And he responded that he didn't believe in God, and he didn’t understand how anyone can give up so much for something that was so uncertain.
"No God?", I said, as we passed a group of punk-rockers waiting to get into a club. "No, I don't believe so”, and he smiled apologetically. "So what happens when you die?", I asked. "Nothing, as far as I can see," he replied matter-of-factly. "And that doesn't bother you?" I asked, and he shook his head no.
But I didn't believe him— because for a moment, just a few seconds, I saw something else in his eyes, a glimmer of hope, perhaps, or a small desire held together with the tiniest of strings. And I knew about the tragedy he had endured but that he had never revealed to me: both of his brothers had been killed, one in a car crash, one of an overdose.
But he didn't crack with me, and so we went back to an easier conversation about women, and the ways to win them over. But his words and thoughts stayed with me.
Early the next morning, I walked alone out into the rising light of the autumn day. The sky was golden and a kind of reddish purple, and fading blue. As I walked, I tried to imagine a world without any hope of God. It was not the first time I had ever considered it. It's always lurking back there, the dark side of faith, which makes faith possible at all. It’s the fuel, I think, behind all our anxieties about the upcoming election.
What if there is no God? If not, then this world is all there is, and it can be a very brutal one. Maybe we are all in more trouble than we realize.
But as the air turns crisp and the days turn darker, the Church gives us stories that testify to hope. There's the story in Maccabees of the Jewish mother and her seven sons. King Antiochus IV was determined to get rid of the Jews—and he had them executed for any practice of their faith, including fasting from pork. So in this story he orders a mother and her seven sons to eat some pork chops, which they refuse to do. And he commands that they be put to death, slowly, agonizingly. One by one they are tortured unmercifully. He slices out their tongues, cuts off their feet and their hands, scalps them, fries their bodies in flaming pans. And just for fun, he lets the audience watch their mother witness their deaths-- before, of course, she is killed. They never give in, never eat the pork. Each one of them accepts his torture and slaughter because they have faith that God will give them life after death.
Mel Gibson gives us a character with similar faith in a new movie called Hacksaw Ridge. It’s a true story about an unarmed young man who endured a savage battle to save dozens of lives in World War II because he believed that God was with him now and in the afterlife. That kind of faith, like martyrdom for the sake of a pork chop, it feels like the faith of a child: "God just kisses you and says, 'Welcome aboard.'”
The gospel story is about a bunch of cynical Jews who are determined to take the hope out of Jesus' message. They don't believe in life after death, and so they pose a trick question to Jesus about the fate of multiple marriage partners in heaven. He ultimately answers them by putting his own life on the line, another mother's son put up for torture, while his mother watched him die. His followers initially reacted with the pessimism of my barber: “The world today…I don’t know what’s gonna happen.”
As I walked beneath a tree-lined path in the rising light of a new day, a sudden gust of wind came up and shook the boughs and branches above my head. A shower of golden and fiery-red leaves rained down, all around me, and I stopped. It was beautiful, breathtaking, like someone shook the stars out of heaven to rain upon my life. I picked one of the leaves up off the ground. It was orange and yellow and a little red, and all the green that had been hiding these beautiful shades was gone. Soon these leaves would turn brown, all their glory vacated, and the husks of their bodies would rot and crumble and turn to dust.
And I thought to myself, what heaven takes this life, where goes the green of the maple and the silver gray of the olive leaf? For all the living blades of grass that die, and all the lower creatures who live and eat and reproduce and play amongst them, what place gives them home when death strikes them brown?
CS Lewis wrote a book called The Great Divorce, which is about a bus ride to heaven, and in it the passengers learn that heaven actually begins not upon arrival but during their time on earth. Every day they are all given the choice to abandon their cynicism, selfishness, egoism, and narcissism, and when they do they discover the garden all around them right here and right now, God smiling on them and saying “welcome aboard”. It’s God’s world, after all, and maybe they should not worry too much.
The same choice faces us as well. With no direct evidence---no voices in the night, no message written across the sky, no angels heralding with trumpets—in the face of nothing but an intuition and a hunch and the testimony of so many who have gone before us, you and I can choose to be like a child and take the leap of faith that someone, something, some force, some love has made it all happen and continues to do so, and will do so beyond this moment and this life.
You can follow Jesus, who guarantees the hope for which all our hearts yearn.
It is in the autumn that death appears to gain the upper hand, and life seems to lose the earthly battle. But brown and black is never permanent, and the wind blows and the sun warms and what was dead raises its head up in defiance of the darkness.
It can even happen in the barbershop.
When you leave with a new haircut from someone like Al, you feel better. You feel more confident, sharp-looking, like the handsome devil that you are. You are ready to meet the world, jumping on the clouds, doing cannonballs in the sky.
As I left the barbershop, Al called out to me. “I hope you survive Tuesday.” “I hope we all do,” I replied. But we both knew deep down, that hope is assured. Regardless of what happens on Tuesday, “I think it’s gonna be like the most perfect place in the universe because God’s there and he won’t let there be anything bad…and you can just sit with him in the garden and even take a nap with him. ”
I don’t know how many more haircuts Al will give me, or how many more I have ahead of me in my life. But I’m pretty sure there will there be angelic barbers for me and him in heaven. And that will make Wednesday a pretty great day for me no matter what!