BY NORRIS BURKES Feb 7 2020
As a hospice chaplain, I’ve had more than one adult caregiver attempt to enlist my help in keeping their dying parent out of hell.
In my best compassionate voice, I often tell them it is not a chaplain’s role to persuade the dying that they are off track. I’m tempted to add, “I’m not the Reverend my father was.”
My father was a Southern Baptist pastor who could spin a dramatic sermon about hell. He often told stories of his efforts to divert folks off their road to perdition.
I remember how he’d lean his 6-foot frame over the pulpit and smooth the air with the dismissive gesture of downturned palms. “People often tell me, ‘Preacher, I don’t want to go to heaven. I want to go ‘to hell with my friends’.” (Hence my headline)
My father paused, cuing his congregation with a headshake, as if to say, “That ain’t gonna happen.” Mumbles from his parishioners told him they were ready to hear how he’d outsmarted his skeptics.
“I tell them, ‘When you get to hell, your friends will desert you’.” Then mixing bass into his punch line, he’d say, “And that’ll be your hell.”
During my 30 years of ministry, I’ve encountered similar logic, but I believe the rationale illustrates people’s misunderstanding of heaven more than it does their understanding of hell.
The problem comes when people see heaven as a place where they’ll be forced to behave. Given that assumption, eternity becomes a simple choice. People will ditch the saints in heaven and go to hell with “a better class of losers” – as Randy Travis says.
Not long ago, I was talking to a hospice patient who was considering the choices he’d made with his life.
“I’m dying,” he told me. “I have cancer throughout my body.”
“I’m sorry,” I managed to say.
“Don’t be,” he said. “Just pray that I’ll make better choices during my last months.”
“OK.” I accepted the hand he’d thrust into mine. “I’ll pray.”
I prayed for everything he’d requested: forgiveness for his rough life and a chance to reconcile with his family.
When I finished, I heard him clear his throat to speak. I was certain he had an addendum, so I bowed my head again.
“Lord!” he began as if God is hard of hearing. “You know me, and I know that I can’t have sex or alcohol in heaven.”
I opened one eye to see if he was having fun with his chaplain, but it quickly became obvious that he was just getting wound up.
“And Lord, that’s going to suck big time! But I still want to go.”
I was impressed. I wasn’t sure I’d ever met a man who was willing to give up so much to see God.
Now I’m not a theologian. I’m not even on the Celestial Entertainment Committee, but whoever taught this man that following God is about giving up his joy was dead wrong.
The good news is that God created all of us, and we will return to him one day. Death will become the means for this man’s repatriation where he will be restored to his country of origin.
He will shed his notions of what he has to give up and will encounter a being much more loving and accepting than anyone had ever dared tell him.
I don’t know about heaven or hell because I’ve never been to either, but I do believe that my father was right when he preached that most eternal questions will be answered in the “sweet by-and-by.”
Sorry, I know that must be a major disappointment to those of you who have plowed your way to the end of this column in hopes you’d find out if there’ll be sex in heaven or beer in hell.
Maybe we should just keep reading the Good Book. I’m sure the answers are in there somewhere.
This column was excerpted from Norris’ book, “Thriving Beyond Surviving.” Contact Chaplain Norris at firstname.lastname@example.org or 10566 Combie Rd. Suite 6643 Auburn, CA 95602 or voicemail (843) 608-9715.