I don’t always like to let others know that I am a minister, especially when traveling or on vacation.
Why? Because it seems that just about everyone has at least one burning theological question, profound or usually not, that they are just dying to ask us. Normally I don’t mind being asked such questions. It’s part of the job description. It also provides an opportunity, maybe, to be of help to someone. But it is nice sometimes to be off the clock.
On a recent vacation, strolling down the beach, taking in the beauty of the ocean, sunshine and fresh air, a man starts walking beside me. He introduces himself, tells me where he’s from and what he does for a living, and asks what I do. I seriously thought about saying, “Oh, I don’t have a job. You hiring?” But that would be a lie and ministers are not supposed to do that. But maybe, maybe God would not mind…too much…under the circumstances?
I confessed to being clergy. Now sometimes, okay, rarely, when someone hears that, it becomes a rather short conversation for they fear we might try to save their soul or worse give them a sermon on tithing. But not this day. Did I tell you I was on vacation? So, I waited for it to come and it did – “You know,” my newest beachcombing buddy said to me, “there’s a question I have…” Being a polite parson and resisting a grimace, “Really?” I replied with some sarcasm that he apparently did not notice. He asked, “What do you think heaven is like?”
Now as questions go, it could have been worse like, “How did Cain find his wife?” or a perennial favorite, “What’s your real job, you know, the one you do when you aren’t at church on Sunday?” But this one about heaven was a question I’ve been asked a number of times.
I don’t know how other ministers handle such situations, but I hardly ever just take a question at face value—that is, to jump right in and try to answer it. I like to ask questions myself and try to find out what’s behind the question, what they are thinking or feeling, the why behind it. Also, I may have no idea how to answer it. But I’ve discovered that letting them express what’s behind their inquiry often is more helpful than any answer I could give. You see, in that sharing they sometimes come to see more of the answer themselves, and that’s a good thing. But we ministers like to think that we are the fountain of knowledge so this is difficult to do. Besides, we learn in time that, though our job involves a lot of talking, some of the best ministry we ever have comes through listening. Good listening also helps ensure more helpful answers. The Book of Proverbs says that it’s foolish to give an answer when you haven’t yet heard the question (Proverbs 18:13).
As I let him talk that day on the beach, I realized that he really wasn’t looking for or needing any deep, detailed theological treatise on the afterlife. His beloved mother had recently died; in fact, she had died rather suddenly before he could get to her side and get the chance to say goodbye. What he really needed was someone to listen as he poured out his grief.
Now the standard, go-to answer to what heaven is like is something like this: streets of gold, jasper walls embedded with precious gems, hosts of angels singing and saints playing harps 24/7, all within a magnificent city that does not need sun or moon, for the radiant presence of God gives all the light that’s needed.
I recall one of my religion professors being asked this very question one day. He said that he appreciated that view of heaven, but hoped that there would also be some grassy fields, trees and flowers, and something to do more than just sit around and play harps.
We had a visiting professor in our seminary once whose topic was on the afterlife. He said that he thought heaven would provide the opportunity for us to keep growing and learning, and even to fulfill more of the great potential that God had placed inside us all that we did not fully realize in this life. He even said that he thought there would be some work for us to do, though he did not give details. I have always liked to think that part of our heavenly job would be to look over our families, friends and loved ones—you know, kind of like guardian angels. But that’s something also best left just to the life to come.
Maybe it is just me, but with many of those who I have loved and are now with God, I have felt in some way I cannot explain a profound sense of their presence. It is a comforting thought that they are still with us in ways more than just in our memories. And perhaps you may think I need therapy or something, but there is seldom a day, for example, that I don’t find myself speaking to my father who died in 1992. Some might see this as self-delusion, but they can’t deny that sweet, most comforting sense of his presence that comes to me through doing so.