I read the local newspaper differently these days. Yes, I still scan the headlines and pull out the supermarket ads to make my grocery list. But then I head straight to the obituaries. Who do I know who’s left the land of the living in the past week? Former classmates . . . members of my congregation . . . contemporaries in their 70s. Heaven is getting very near, and I have a lot of questions.
It seems many people do.
When Dr. Stan Mast asked our church’s youth group what kind of sermons they wanted to hear, he got a dozen variations on the question “What is heaven like?” In his sermon “Heaven Now: The Place for You,” he describes heaven as a place that exists right now. Jesus himself said, “In my Father’s house are many rooms.”
In my mind’s eye, I’m trying to imagine what that “place for me” looks like. Is it a community of condominiums? A cottage on a lake or a ranch with rolling pastures? Although I never get a clear answer to what those “many rooms” look like, I do get a glimpse of what it feels like to be there. I’m safe, happy, free of anxiety. I’m with Jesus and unconditionally loved.
But what do we do in heaven? Christian theologians agree that anything of value on this earth will not be lost in heaven, just perfected. How many things of value on this earth are on your list: fulfilling work, friendships, music, art, literature, sports, animals, biking, nature, health—even chocolate?
Many theologians agree that we will know our loved ones in heaven. Peter Kreeft addresses a list of 20 questions people often ask (Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Heaven). Among them: Will we know everything in heaven? Do our loved ones in heaven see us now? Will we have emotions in heaven? Will we be reunited with our pets in heaven? In answer to those questions he writes, “We were meant from the beginning to have stewardship over the animals. And what better place to begin than with already petted pets?” Could that mean I will someday get to snuggle with my beloved Australian Shepherd, Marmalade, who is buried in my front field? (Of course, that assumes that heaven will also remove my allergies to dog hair!)
In his book Bringing Heaven Down to EarthNathan Bierma suggests that God teases us with little glimpses of heaven right here on earth. Amidst all the sorrow and pain, he lets us taste what goodness is. Are we alert enough to spot it? It seems easier to imagine heaven when we are able to recognize real glimpses in our everyday lives.
But after reading the thoughts of theologians and philosophers, as a retired elementary teacher I confess that I am still more comfortable listening to children. I have a new understanding of Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:3: “Truly I say to you, unless you tum and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” In my first grade classroom, I heard the language of heaven often.
Children have a way of seeing, wondering, thinking, and speaking that is so matter-of-fact. Their questions and observations are direct. They don’t care how long it took to create the world. One student asked, “Did God laugh when he did it?” Another asked, “Can I choose my job in heaven?” After hearing the story of Daniel in the lion’s den, a 6-year-old, diligently coloring her lion’s mane, said with a smug smile, “You know, lions won’t bite in heaven.”
But my favorite memory came after telling the story of David and Goliath. We sat in a circle on the rug, and as I looked at those precious faces, I asked, “Won’t it be fun someday when we get to heaven and meet David? We can ask him what it was like when that little stone hit just the right spot and Goliath went crashing to the ground.” John's immediate response was, “Teacher, you’re lucky. You’ll get to do it first.”