THERE’S THAT PHASE kids go through around three or four, their favorite word is “Why?” You know the one. We offer a crescendo of answers (as if there is an answer that will pacify them).
Because one ice cream sandwich is enough… You’ll spoil your supper… You’ve had too much sugar already… You don’t want all your teeth to rot and fall out do you?
Then finally, you thrown down your coup de grâce: “Because I said so!”
AS WE AGE, the questions change; the routine, not so much. Can I get a new (fill in the blank)? Are we almost there? Can I have the car tonight? And my go to answer: “Ask your mother.”
I remember about half-way through adolescence I began to long for adulthood, when I thought I would either have all the answers, or I could at least answer my own questions. But here I am staring at 69 and I still have questions, and many times the answers I find are unfulfilling: “That’s just the way the electoral college works.” “Yes, tattoos sort of hurt.”
Just the other day, a close friend asked me a question. He put it this way: “Hey, I want to ask you a question and I want an honest answer.”
“Sid’s in El Reno!” I quickly answered, hoping he was going to ask me my favorite burger joint.
“What is your concept of heaven?” He asked.
When it comes to burgers, Sid’s is about as close as you get. But, he wasn’t talking about burgers.
Was this a trick question? Does he know something I don’t? Is it a test?
Certainly, there are ideas and imagary, in my head of heaven which come from my upbringing in church. As I page through those mental pictures now, I see that much of it comes from the old hymns I grew up hearing:
“I’ll Fly Away”
“We’re Marching to Zion”
“When We All Get To Heaven”
Or this from the old hymn, “Sweet Beulah Land”:
I'm kind of homesick for a country
To which I've never been before.
No sad goodbyes will there be spoken
For time won't matter anymore.
I told my friend that at this point in my life, to say that I have a concept of heaven would seem pretty arrogant. Who am I to even guess what it may be like? Or, to quote the latest and greatest opus on heavenly speculation: “I Can Only Imagine”.
Part of my mental heavenly tableau comes from memories I have of traveling evangelists. I always thought of them as arrogant, pompous, flashy, hucksters. These guys would stand in the pulpit telling of a place with mansions, streets of gold, painless eternal youthfulness. One guy went as far as to say he believed everyone would be 33 years old. Rationale: “Because that’s how old Jesus was when he died.”
I remember thinking, surely heaven won’t be an eternity of hearing this blowhard and his ilk rant and rave and wag his finger and King James version of the Bible in the air.
And then, as if he were reading my mind, he would seem to insinuate that anyone who didn’t see things as he sees things wouldn’t make it past the pearly gate (or is it gates?).
Before anyone begins to wonder if I’ve abandoned the faith of my youth; I do believe there is a heaven, I just don’t think any human has the capacity to conceptualize it. Our imagination is too limited. Our vocabulary lacks the words. Our faith is too constrained. Our belief is too conditional. Our understanding of God is too small.
TAKE PEACE FOR EXAMPLE—the kind of peace the Bible talks about, the kind of peace that passes understanding (Philippians 4:7). Occasionally you get a sense of this peace (or, I hope you do), and when you do it is wonderful, but you can’t explain it or even understand it. There is a mystique about it.
For me, spiritual stuff is like that; and I like it that way. I don’t want a predictable, understandable, knowable religion. I want the mystery, the wonder. I’m okay with NOT knowing what it will all be like.
About that peace that passes understanding; we can get a sense of it from time to time. Here’s an example: not long ago, standing next to my dad as he died; at first, I couldn’t believe he had breathed his last breath. I even slapped his hand a few times to try to rouse him. But then———Peace. I don’t know how else to explain it. Because it is unexplainable. It passes understanding. Please don’t patronize me by pretending you understand it. Don’t try to preacher-splain it to me. Don’t try to dismiss it with some contrived rationalization or spiritualization. Please don’t assume a lack of faith. Can’t we just rest in the mystery of it?
I believe, as with this un-understandable peace, we also get an occasional glimpse of heaven—not a grasp, but a glimpse. For me, I see it in the sublime. The sublime defined in the Oxford Dictionary as: “of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe.”
TAKE NATURE FOR EXAMPLE—some people see heaven as a mountain-top experience, thinking the valley is full of shadows of death. But I’m more of a valley guy (not the 80s dudes of southern California, counterpart to the Valley Girls) when it comes to the vast splendor of the mountains. Sure the mountaintop offers majestic views, but of what?
“We’ve got some difficult days ahead, but it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop … I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.” A few hours after this speech, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by James Earl Ray.
That’s a powerful glimpse! A perspective from the mountaintop seems to belong to true visionaries.
For me, I prefer to be knee deep in the mountain stream, the deepest point of the valley, where there is life. Here are a few of my favorite lines from literature, from one of my favorite books, “A River Runs Through It”, by Norman Maclean:
“Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.
“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
“I am haunted by waters.”
TAKE ART FOR EXAMPLE: I see the sublime and get a glimpse of heaven in art.
“If a work of art is rich and vital and complete, those who have artistic instincts will see its beauty, and those to whom ethics appeal more strongly than aesthetics will see its moral lesson. It will fill the cowardly with terror, and the unclean will see in it their own shame.” — Oscar Wilde
Experiencing art is sensory: full-on, right? Whether it’s a walk through The Met, or The Philbrook, or sitting at a beautifully decorated table to an artful meal surrounded by good people and good conversation with good music playing in the background. Full-0n sensory. And even that sometimes passes understanding for me. There are times I get the inkling that I may have another sense beyond the five. I can’t explain it. But, what if, maybe one of these days as heaven-dwellers, we discover that we now have seven or maybe more senses? Because maybe it will take that many.
I’ll never forget the first time, my first Grand-Girl, the one who made me Pops, played her first piano recital. I was transported: how or where, I don’t know. It’s un-understandable to me. But, it gives me a glimpse.
So, what is my concept of heaven? Maybe it will be many, many firsts—new and fresh every day. Like this:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.”
— Lamentations 3:22-24