Frogs, streets of gold, and more views on the afterlife
COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Reader responses to our current series of columns on how one’s views on the afterlife relate to life this side of the grave have been just out of this world . . . or maybe not!
For example, take the phone call I received the other day from retired technical consultant Bill Porochnuk, who lives northeast of Cochrane on an acreage that is nothing short of an arboreal paradise.
“Hello, Warren,” he began in his usually cheerful tone of voice that, this time, betrayed a hint of differing opinion.
“About your columns on the afterlife, my late wife, Alice, a Baptist, would take umbrage at the words of some of the hymns they sang at her church. She always wondered why so many of them spoke of heaven being a place with streets of gold. ‘I’d rather have streets lined with trees and grass,’ she’d say.”
And you know, when I thought about it, Alice was right. I remembered from my church youth-group days some 60 years ago singing evangelist Ira Stanphill’s popular piece: “I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop / In that bright land where we’ll never grow old. / And someday yonder, we will never more wander, / But walk on streets that are purest gold.”
I also recalled similar words from Eliza Hewitt’s hymn, “When We All Get to Heaven,” which concludes: “Onward to the prize before us! / Soon His beauty we’ll behold; / Soon the pearly gates will open; / We shall tread the streets of gold. / When we all get to heaven, / What a day of rejoicing that will be . . . .”
Two of our other Cochrane-area coffee companions just might share Alice’s bewilderment over such expressions of heavenly mindedness. Bryne and Anne Weerstra are biologists who work as independent environmental consultants. Anne sent me one of Bryne’s photos of a juvenile yellow morph of the “At Risk” northern leopard frog with the following explanation:
Some years ago Bryne was doing environmental assessment work for the Alberta government on crown land leased by a Christian church group very much looking forward to heaven, she said.
“The land was severely overgrazed by horses and cattle, and a population of a rare phase of the northern leopard frog was endangered, but he discovered that the attitude of the leaseholders was that it didn’t matter how they treated the land and in what state they left it. It would be in God’s hands, and at the second coming of Christ, they would leave Earth and proceed to the next life.”
Anne and Bryne found this attitude “very troubling.” Though raised an Anglican, she’s wondered for some time whether people who believe in reincarnation might be “better stewards,” since “it should follow that they wouldn’t want to be born into a world that is more degraded and polluted.”
Then bringing it around to my interest in biblical studies, she asked: Doesn’t the Bible instruct us to be “good stewards of God’s creations?”
Anne’s question leads quite nicely into an email I received from Rabbi Shaul Osadchey, of Calgary’s Beth Tzedec Synagogue, on heavenly thinking versus earthly responsibilities:
“There is a teaching in Judaism,” he said, “that if someone comes into your presence with news that the Messiah is outside, you are supposed to finish what you are doing and only then go outside to check the veracity of the claim. Judaism is clearly focused on the here-and-now, even though it affirms the existence in very broad terms of an afterlife.
“Life in the present is the most precious gift of God and every ounce of our being must be directed to living as God would want us to live – finding blessing and joy in everyday life, being just and honest in our relations with others, respecting the environment and all of God's creations, and seeking to bring Tikun Olam (mending the broken world in which we reside).
“Thus, as Jews, we complete our tasks before investigating claims that the Messiah has arrived. Our attention to the hungry, homeless, ill, and the neglected in society should occupy our thoughts and deeds rather than visions of reward in the afterlife.”
Well, readers, what about the rest of you? Does the glitter of heavenly “streets of gold” blind us to earthly needs right before our very eyes? I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by Muslim and Baha’i perspectives on this. Stay tuned!
© 2014 Warren Harbeck