Last night I moderated a discussion group called Theology at the Albatross, and the topic was the Afterlife. My first question was, “If you could pick your own afterlife, what would it be like?”
The answer to a question like this tells you a lot about a person. The relational people want to be around all their family and friends. The adventurous people want there to always be travels and challenges and new discoveries. The thoughtful people want to meet everyone throughout history and discuss their lives and their ideas. The spiritual people just want to be in the presence of God and worship him and ask him all sorts of questions. I think these are all great… and of course, most of us combine these things in one way or another.
But then Andrew, one of the participants, said this: “Even though I have certain ideals about heaven, I really just want God to pick something for me. I think he plans to show me joy and happiness that I never could have imagined.”
And this reminded me of a scene from The Black Stallion, which I had recently re-watched. In fact, I recall getting a bit choked up during this particular scene, because of the unimaginable joy it expressed.
The two main characters of the film are Alec, a boy about 9 years old, and Black, the title stallion. In the scene that came to mind, Alec and Black were shipwrecked in the Atlantic ocean, and both washed up on a desert island. (Although they were the only ones, and it’s not apparent whether anyone else survived.) Black had been very harshly handled by his owners, and Alec had just lost his father in the wreck. But their intrigue in each other seemed to suppress all other worries, and a long process begins as Alec tries to woo Black’s friendship.
He succeeds in tiny steps, and before long he’s riding the horse bareback through the shallow waters just off the beach, falling over and over into the water. Each time Black turns around for him, and they try again. Soon, they find their rhythm, and Alec is flying along the beach on the back of his stallion, holding his arms in the air and laughing at the wind. This, to me, is one of the most triumphant moments in cinematic history, as the boy forgets his grief, and the horse forgets his fear, in a blur of euphoria and romance.
However, if you’d approached Alec before the shipwreck, and told him he could have anything in the world that he wanted, what would he ask for? A bunch of toys? A huge piece of cake with a cold glass of milk? A warm bed with a bedtime story from his dad? Maybe so… and what’s wrong with that?
But could Alec, in his liveliest of all dreams, have begun to imagine that experience on the beach? Could he have asked you to give him a big black horse so he could fly down the shore of a desert island with his arms stretched out?
We want so many things from life, and many times we’re afraid that God is going to deny them of us. We pray and pray for all these things, good things even, and hold our breath until God comes through.
But if we believe in a God that is infinitely capable, and infinitely good, how could we hope to ask for anything as amazing and joyous as the gifts he’s chosen for us on his own? I imagine I could spend my entire life inventing a perfect idea of heaven for myself, only to arrive and find that God has invented one a thousand times better.