A friend reposted a question by John Tesh, the radio announcer, on her Facebook page. The puffy-haired spokesman, known for his stint on Entertainment Tonight, asked:
“When you get to heaven, who are you going to look for first?”
The answers were what you’d expect. There were about 100 “mommas,” and lots of deceased husbands and wives. Even a few children gone much too soon from parents left to grieve without them. There were a couple of jokes about not wanting to see an ex, but then realizing there’s no chance they’d end up there. Another about not having to worry with attorneys, since none would make the cut.
One interesting thing: absolutely no one believed they weren’t going to make it themselves. No one, that is, except my friend Stella. She’s not placing any bets on getting there.
Sal’s a friend of mine who’s in his 90s. He’s a fun guy to talk to, and it’s not hard to tell why he has lots of friends. Trust me, you’d like Sal. He’s Italian and still full of life, despite his years. One other thing: there’s no baloney in anything he says.
That is until Sal starts talking about God and heaven. Then, surprisingly, he pours it on thick:
“What happens after we die? I believe we live on in the memories of others.”
Well, that’s nice, but that’s not really “living on.” That’s just being remembered. If I’m dead, that doesn’t do me any good. And let’s be honest. My kids will remember me, and maybe my grandkids, for a while.
But when they’re gone, then I’m gone, forever. If a memory is all that’s left of me.
I cringe a little when Sal talks about heaven:
“Here’s what I believe about heaven. I think we make our own heaven here on earth.”
Heaven on earth? Sorry, I’ve been all over this earth and rarely experienced anything here close to unbridled fulfillment and everlasting joy. Sure, moments here and there, little glimpses, perhaps. But good luck creating heaven on earth. As soon as you do, some other person will knock it down while creating their own!
Why is it when people talk about God or heaven, they suddenly sound like a Hallmark card filled with syrupy platitudes?
Even though most people don’t like to talk about their own death, many of our most beloved stories and movies deal with the subject. Why?
First, because the threat of death increases the stakes of any storyline. When the hero could die, suddenly the story is more important. But it’s also because, ironically, life is made sweeter by death. It’s like when I’ve done theatre, and we come to the end of a show’s performances. A wave of nostalgia runs through the cast as they say a particular line for the very last time or sing one last verse of a song. It’s as if something precious is running out of life right before you.
The fact that beautiful experiences come to an end inevitably makes them much more precious. That sounds odd, but it’s true. Our keepsakes from the past are precious to us, partly because most of them are quite perishable.
The Polaroids from that first date with your husband will change color and curl in your garage’s heat one day.
That “World’s Best Dad” Father’s Day card your daughter made for you at age 5 will eventually fade and turn to dust.
And you too, my friend, will turn to dust as well.
I’m a bottom-line kind of guy. I don’t like insincerity or falsity. So as much as I like Stella, her dismissive answers repel me. They hit me like an open dumpster’s smell in the summer heat.
What I want is the truth—the truth about dying, heaven, and eternity.
Bluntly put, I want to know if I am going to live forever or not. And I want to know it with as much certainty as possible, because what else really matters beyond that? If there is a place like heaven, we should do anything and everything to make sure we’ll be there.
But if there’s no heaven, then absolutely everything we love—and everyone we love–will go away. Forever. You’ve probably tried to avoid that thought, but it’s something I think about often.
For instance, no one has ever loved a woman more than I love my wife. So I can’t bear the thought of her ever dying, though I know it’s inevitable. Like some of you with your own spouse, I selfishly hope I die first, so I won’t have to endure it.
But one thing I cannot imagine is the idea that once she dies, we will never ever be together again. She would be lost to me, forever.
You say, “Don’t worry, Dave. It won’t matter. You’ll be gone, too, so you won’t even know it.”
So existential oblivion is supposed to be comforting? It’s just the opposite. The idea of just not existing anymore is the nightmare of all nightmares.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking I’d be better off not pondering these things. But I believe that’s the problem with most people. By not thinking about death, and existence, and eternity, we miss the most important question of life. And as a result, our lives lack the sweetness that endings bring. By acknowledging our own “expiration date,” we can actually start living lives more aware and meaningful than if we just sleep-walk through them, oblivious to the fact that soon the end credits will roll and our story in this world will be over.
But instead of savoring life and living it to its fullest, we merely drift off as life peters away.
I’m going to stop talking to Sal about this and pivot to another friend. And He said this about dying:
“In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also. And where I go you know, and the way you know.”
Thomas said to Him, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, and how can we know the way?”
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me…” – John 14:2-6
I spoke that very Scripture earlier today. I was called to the bedside of a man struggling to take his final breaths. Cancer had ravaged his body to where he looked like one of those victims of a World War II concentration camp.
In his final moments, the dying man didn’t want poetry, and he wasn’t interested in being someone’s memory. He wanted to know if Jesus would let him into heaven because he knew he wasn’t going to be in this world much longer.
I looked that man in the eye when I spoke those words, “if it were not so, I would have told you.” Jesus was saying, “This is important stuff. So important that if it weren’t the case, I would let you know. I’m not going to lie to you about something as important as death.”
What we need is to face the truth, about our lives and about the next life. We need to stop telling ourselves cute little platitudes. Because when death comes, it’s a brutal reality. No one wants poetry or pleasantries then. They want to know when they close their eyes, they will open them in another land—that “undiscovered country” of Shakespeare.
In that moment, Jesus is looking us in the eye and saying, “Don’t worry. I’ve been there and it’s wonderful! And the reason I’ve returned there is to get things ready for you. So hurry up!”
Heaven is too real and too eternal to guess about. So despite what Stella says, you really shouldn’t guess about it either.
Finally, in answer to dear Mr. Tesh, when I get to heaven I’ll just be looking for one person. And no, it’s not my wife.
When my eyes close for the last time here on earth, they will open in the next world, looking for a man. That man told me He has been getting ready for my arrival now for a couple of thousand years.
And I know if I can only find Him, all will be well. Because He’s the one my wife will be looking for and God-willing all my kids and grandkids, too.
When I find Him, I’ve found everything. That’s how it works.
Sounds too good to be true? No, it is the truth, because Jesus reminded us He is “the way, the truth, and the life himself.” He never lied, every word He said is true.
And if it were not so, just like He said, He would have told you. Jesus, that is.
Dave Gipson is a husband, father of 4 adopted children and one biological child, former foster parent, and pastor at Naples Family Church of Naples, FL. An author, Dave's new highly acclaimed book, "The Seven Surprises: Everyday Epiphanies on Being a Better Human Being," is now available. He also contributes regular commentaries to the Naples Daily News as well as other international publications. He has served churches for the last 25+ years, from Florida to the inner-city of Chicago. Rev. Gipson holds his ordination in the Southern Baptist denomination, and has two earned Masters degrees in Religion and Divinity. Read more at http://davegipson.net.Follow him on Twitter at @realdavegipson.