“This isn’t right”, John thought.
The view before him didn’t match his expectations in any way. Only a long, tall, massive, and endless wall with a single gated entrance could properly define the boundaries of heaven. St. Peter would, of course, oversee that entrance, verifying against the Book of Life those wishing to enter. John’s name was in that book. There could be no doubt on that point.
He saw none of this. Instead John stood on a clearly marked trail in a lightly forested area. His confusion left him motionless; and speechless had there been someone with whom to converse. A shrill cry from an unseen bird brought him out of his thoughts and he started to take in his surroundings in more detail. An incredible variety of plant life flourished all around him and yet, in some hard to define way, an order permeated all of it. Everything looked perfect.
“How odd”, he thought.
No decision started John along the trail. He just noticed himself moving. The forest scenery changed often keeping him off guard and yet relaxing him at the deepest level of his being. When the stranger appeared at his side, he didn’t question the suddenness or feel threatened.
They walked together in silence for a minute before the stranger asked, “Do you like it?”
“Yes. It is oddly peaceful.”
More silence. “We’ll need to get you settled. I thought you might enjoy the community just ahead.”
“So this is heaven?” John asked hesitantly and with more disappointment in his voice than he intended.
The stranger turned to look at John. “Sure. What did you expect?”
John’s idea of a wall, pearly gates, and harp-playing angels suddenly seemed silly. Not wanting to embarrass himself he said softly, “It’s not important.” Then, resuming his regular voice, “You said something about a community?”
“God created us to live in communities and that’s no less true in heaven. I think this one will suit you well. They’re great people.”
The stranger’s words still hung in the air as they turned a slight corner allowing John to see his new home. He stopped dead in his tracks. The peacefulness of the previous minutes evaporated as quickly as water sprinkled on a hot summer sidewalk. There could be no mistake. He knew each of the three people talking together just ahead.
His mind raced. “How could they be here?” John thought. “That’s Harry the town drunk! The only times he wasn’t drunk was when he was sleeping off his last binge. Marge told me he got religion before he died but he can’t be in heaven. And Joan? Her reputation goes back to when we were in high school. The guy’s loved her. Literally! And that affair she had with the mayor last year didn’t earn her a place in heaven. Ben? Since when does heaven let in crooks? There isn’t a person in town that Ben hasn’t cheated in one way or another – even his own mother…”
“Is something wrong?”
The stranger’s question stopped John’s internal monologue but his feelings of indignation boiled on. “There certainly is!” he thought. Fortunately he paused before speaking giving himself a chance to calm down enough to mask his anger.
“I don’t think this is the right place for me.”
“Oh, why not?”
The innocent tone and sincerity of the stranger’s question fueled John’s outrage like gasoline being poured on a fire. He wanted to scream, “Why not? I’ll tell you why not!” But John maintained his self-control – one of the traits that had made him such a good guy on earth – forced calm into his voice and said, “I knew these people on earth and we didn’t have a lot in common. They’re just not my type.”
“They’re different now, you know”, said the stranger with a gentle voice that touched John some place deep in his soul. It caught him off guard and left him uncertain for a moment.
“I’m sure they are,” said John after a moment’s silence. The sympathy in his voice surprised him.
The stranger said nothing, stood still, and looked at the happy conversation between Harry, Joan, and Ben. John needed the quiet. His anger on seeing these people, the horror of spending eternity with them, and the strange murmurings provoked by the stranger – could it be love? – all swirled within him. John was comfortable with the anger – something he’d prefer to call righteous indignation – but these other feelings left him unsettled. Should he tell the stranger? Ask him for help?
Years of conditioning won out. “Perhaps there’s another community I might join,” he said.
The stranger turned to face John who saw disappointment, sympathy, and caring on the man’s face. For a brief moment John wanted to drop his mask of self-control, to blurt out all the conflicting thoughts and emotions fighting within him. At his core he recognized the stranger’s offer of help. He felt both vulnerable and loved but even as he named these two emotions he knew they couldn’t coexist. To be vulnerable, to drop all his masks, would be to reveal the true John and he knew, absolutely knew, that the true John wasn’t loveable. No one had ever loved that person. They’d only loved the John who wore the masks and hid behind carefully built walls. This stranger would be no different.
John’s face revealed his decision. The stranger said, somewhat sadly, “There is another community. It’s just up the road and over a bridge.”
They began to walk and John quickly returned to his normal self, the last scene already being cut from the movie of his life.
Arriving at the bridge the stranger stopped. John couldn’t see the other side as a light fog obscured the view. He waited for the stranger to lead the way but he didn’t move.
“I can’t take you across the bridge” he said.
“It’s just a rule. You know about rules. I’m only allowed to be with people in certain areas.”
“What should I do?”
“Just walk across the bridge. Someone else will meet you and will get you settled.”
A darkness passed through John. Doubt? Fear? “Can’t you get me fixed up? You’ve been very nice.”
“What if this community isn’t right for me either? What will I do then?”
“You don’t need to worry about that. You have many things in common with them. They’re very much like you.”
“Oh, good!” John replied with more enthusiasm than he really felt. “Goodbye then and thank you. Perhaps I’ll see you around. We’ve got all eternity to visit!” It sounded lame as soon as he said it and hung in the air, mocking him.
“Goodbye,” said the stranger. “I am sorry my first suggestion didn’t please you.” Then he turned and walked away, disappearing from sight more quickly than John wanted.
He took a deep breath. “Let’s start again” John thought. “Perhaps heaven uses deep canyons to protect itself instead of high walls. St. Peter will undoubtedly be waiting on the other side with the Book of Life open to my name!”
John started briskly across the bridge but the enthusiasm he had mustered just moments before diminished with each step. He felt cold and suddenly realized how physically comfortable he’d been with the stranger. By the time he entered the fog his enthusiasm completely disappeared having been replaced by doubt. He slowed and then stopped.
“What is going on? Heaven shouldn’t be this confusing!” he cried aloud.
No one answered, highlighting his loneliness. John stood on the bridge trying to control his emotions but the effort only seemed to make things worse. Sadness, fear, anger, resentment, hatred, and soul crushing loneliness gripped him as if it would never let go. Memories, like a fast moving slide show, flew through his mind forcing him to relive the worse moments of his life – moments of envy, jealousy, and selfishness; times when he judged, neglected, and despised others; times when he committed the same sins he so self-righteously condemned in others.
John spun around as if to shake off the memories like a swarm of flies stopping to face back the way he had come. What he saw knocked him down as if he’d been hit by a punch. The part of the bridge he’d crossed had disappeared. A great chasm now separated John from where he’d left the stranger and a horrifying idea began to form in his mind. John pushed the idea away with every ounce of mental strength he could muster. “It’s alright he thought. There should be a divide without a bridge. Harry, Joan, and Ben shouldn’t be allowed to go where I’m spending eternity. I’m not like them.”
But the terrifying thought wouldn’t leave. Harry, Joan, and Ben had seemed happy. The stranger had been so kind and caring. He had felt loved by the stranger. Now love, joy, and any sense of hope seemed to drain out of him as if someone had opened a valve in his skin. He turned to look toward the end of the bridge. The fog had lifted enough for John to clearly see a gate and what lay beyond. It wasn’t St. Peter that awaited him.
“No! No! Oh, No!” he cried. John’s lamenting wails echoed and re-echoed off unseen walls. A lone haunting voice joined his, followed moments later by others, until the air resounded with hopeless sorrow.