On this All Saints Sunday, our hearts are full of memories of people we have known and loved. I remember today a man who was part of the church I pastored in Zanesville.
His name was Fred , and he was a widower in his 80's. He had a winsome spirit and a great sense of humor as he lived out his faith. He sent letters of encouragement to his friends (prior to email). He playfully called me “Sister Pastor.”
One morning I received a call that Fred had been taken to the emergency room . I went to be with him, and was joined by one of Fred's close friends. In the hallway, the doctor told us that Fred was in a critical condition.
He was lying on the gurney with his bedroom slippers on the floor. Anxiously, he kept telling us that he was going home and that he needed to put his slippers on. We tried to comfort him, to tell him that we would stay with him,and that he didn't need to worry about his shoes. He ignored our comments, and said that he was leaving very soon. His focus was not on the present, and he seemed to be perplexed that we couldn't understand.
After a while, he looked to a corner of the room, and smiled. He said “It is just so beautiful”. Those were his last words to us; Fred passed away soon after.
It was a privilege to have known Fred and to be with him in his last hour. I have not tried to rationally explain the experience in the hospital. I felt then, and I continue to regard it , as a time when heaven became more visible for me. Visible not to my eyes, but apparent to my spirit. It was a holy time for all of us in that hospital cubicle.
Through the centuries , there have been many imaginative accounts of heaven: think of all the stories, books, paintings, jokes about St. Peter , hymns, movies about heaven and the life to come.
A book I recently read featured a pro golfer who was in heaven. In his heaven, there were 7,178 golf courses and he even got to play golf with Moses, Jesus and Mary! For all you golfers, remember this is fiction...
If I asked you to picture heaven, what you say? Probably each of us would have a different description,a different emphasis. We find that heaven cannot be captured by our limited understanding. When his father died, Bart Millard ( of MercyMe) wrote the song “ I Can Only Imagine”. These are some of the lyrics:
Surrounded by your glory What will my heart feel?
Will I dance for you Jesus, Or in awe of you be still? Will I stand in your presence,Or to my knees will I fall? Will I sing Halellujah,Will I be able to speak at all? I can only imagine.
In thinking of the life to come , what might we look forward to?
Reunion with loved ones, rest, the healing of all wounds, the answering of questions that have puzzled us, justice, peace, reconciliation, a closer relationship with God, new adventures, the wonder of eternity.
There is so much that needs to be made whole on this earth, and we look towards a new creation. We have the hope that this life is not all that there is. We are God's beloved children and God's love is everlasting.
In the Revelation to John, we find not just a glimpse but a panoramic view of heaven so full of images that is is overwhelming. There is a beautiful city with many open doorways. There are people from all nations, there is glorious light, and music . There is a river as clear as crystal and a tree of life that brings healing to the nations. There are no more tears or sorrow or death. Central focus is upon God, and it is God's presence that brings the whole picture together.
Christ is portrayed and honored as the Lamb and as the Shepherd.
Another Biblical image of the kingdom of heaven is one of my favorites, a banquet: where there is plenty of nourishment and room at the table for all.
Jesus spoke of God's kingdom already being present among us now! It is not just a future event. God's love is already at work in our world. God is already wiping tears from our eyes; forgiveness is being offered; songs of praise and joy can be heard. There is the possibility of new beginnings. The banquet table is already set. Evil is being defeated, prisoners are set free. People are gathered under the banner of love. Wherever we see the life-changing works of Jesus being done, the kingdom of heaven has come to us.
These everyday glimpses of heaven assure me that there is even more to come.
By faith, we read names of dear friends and family, trusting in God's unconditional love and care for each of them.
With gratitude, we can see evidence of God's kingdom of heaven in our world when the broken places and people are made whole.
With hope, we can walk through the valley of sickness, or sorrow , or even death, because the risen Lord has made a way for us, and is preparing a place for us, and is bringing us home.
On this day of remembering, heaven is very near!