Heaven for Heretics: A Vision from Coco (and Memaw)

This past October my grandmother went home to Jesus. She was as faithful as they […]

Sarah Condon / 1.3.18

This past October my grandmother went home to Jesus. She was as faithful as they come and her absence has left a hole in the heart of our family. It is one that will not be filled this side of heaven.

Her funeral was in a small Southern Baptist church with simply stained glass windows and one of the most pastoral preachers I have encountered. Really, we could not have asked for anything more beautiful.

And yet, one thing stayed with me. And it’s not a complaint but more of a longing. There was very little mention of my grandfather, Herbert. I don’t know why I expected to go to my grandmother’s funeral and hear stories about my grandfather. He died in the 1960s. My father, the oldest of four children, was in high school. I wondered if too much time had passed for us to even be able to remember him? Or maybe we just didn’t want to? Or perhaps, wanting people to talk about your grandfather at your grandmother’s funeral is just as ridiculous as it is to type on this page. 

He was an alcoholic, a crop duster, and he did not go to church. This is much of what I know about him. I suppose I wanted to fill in more of the blanks.

I wanted to understand how my “Pharisaic Baptist” (her words) grandmother landed herself a guy who didn’t want to sit on a pew. I wanted to know how her teetotaling bumped into his insatiable desire for whiskey. I wanted to know how his practicality knocked into her dreamy Biblical academic tendencies. And I don’t even know if those impressions are all that correct.

I wanted answers that few people, if any, could give me. And I know that these are uncomfortable and personal questions. But I’ve had that tick my whole life.

A few weeks ago we took our kids to see Coco. The sheer artistry of the movie is worth every penny. In one incredible scene portraying the afterlife, there are 10,000 buildings colorfully mapped onto one another. It honestly took my breath away.

Coco is also worth seeing for anyone who happens to have long ago family dysfunction that is sometimes spoken about but never said over a microphone in a Baptist funeral. So, everyone. The movie is for everyone.

The protagonist, a young boy named Miguel, crosses into the Land of the Dead on Día de Muertos to find his long lost great-great-grandfather. This paternal figure has been purposefully forgotten by the family. It was assumed that he had abandoned his wife and young daughter, Coco, to become a musician. This is the story young Miguel was always told. But we learn that his generations ago grandfather’s life was much more complicated than that. The movie reminded me that people are never as easily categorized as we want them to be. They fall in love and make impossible decisions and life just happens to them. The same way it happens to us. And how they are remembered may or may not be who they really were.

But the movie was helpful for more than that. Coco also helped me make sense of a dream I had a few weeks after my grandmother died.

In this dream we were sitting at a table together. And she was telling me about my grandfather’s childhood. I remember how jarring it was because I know nothing about how he grew up. She told me how difficult his boyhood had been. Of course, the specifics in the dream were lost in the waking up, as is always the case. But she told me about several generations back with her concluding, “So this is why he was the way he was.”

After some time had passed I said to her, “Memaw, we’ve been sitting here for so long. Isn’t there something we should be doing?” And she said gently, “That’s the thing here, Sarah. We can sit and talk for as long as we want here.”

And suddenly I saw it in Coco. The dead all together as family, reunited in a beautiful place with all of the secrets revealed and none of the love lost. It was honestly the most comforting vision of heaven I’ve seen.

In church world, we are often told that heaven is a place of white robes and halos. One where we endlessly worship Jesus with either fog machines or incense, depending on your liturgical preference. Perfectly good theologians tell me that we will join the heavenly host, always praising God for eternity. Everyone acts like this sounds wonderful. And I often feel lonely in my discomfort. 

I worry about God when I hear these descriptions. He sounds so needy. When I hear a praise song from 1992 about being endlessly lost in God’s presence I become concerned that God might need therapy. Does he need me to praise him 24/7? Will I get hungry with all the standing? Will I have to pee? Does there have to be a drummer? These are my questions.

I find this vision fairly tedious and somewhat sad. As I was watching Coco, it struck me that I might just be a heretic of sorts. I found myself hoping the artists are right and the theologians are wrong. I found myself praying that the dream about my Memaw was not merely a blip in the neurons of my brain. I hope that heaven is a place that encompasses every good gift we have been given: family, story, forgiveness, healing. 

I long for a table where I can sit with my grandmother and my grandfather. And they can answer all of my questions, without shame or sadness. They can tell me what their love and pain looked and felt like. And I can tell them about mine. And we can sit there together, resting in the knowledge that we have all been saved by the One who loves us without fail.

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7 responses to “Heaven for Heretics: A Vision from Coco (and Memaw)”

  1. Sean says:


  2. Linda Klitzke says:

    Very well done, Sarah. As one who dreams in ways of which you have spoken, I can tell you they are more real than any waking revelation or epiphany in my experience!

  3. Some really crucial thoughts. The consideration about heaven is especially apt -if that is the goal, why did God bother making anything beyond a throne room with throngs of angels? There’s some very gnostic thinking in some christian teaching on all this. I agree with Lewis – the new creation is going to be filled with surprise.

  4. John Zahl says:

    I loved the movie too! Thanks for these reflections, Sarah. The distinction between conditional (as long as you don’t listen to/play music) vs. unconditional blessing really connected with me. I love too that Pixar made a movie for kids that is all about death. How refreshing (and pretty radical on that front)! Ever since I read the chapter in your book called “Bring your baby to Hospice Day,” I’ve decided not to sugar coat death for my daughter. Months in and it still feels very much like the right move. Anyway, I got to take her to Coco, and she loved it.

  5. Dale Klitzke says:

    This is wonderful—thanks, Sarah

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