I have often talked and written about my first Sunday school teacher, Mrs. Lib. I was just a teen when my beloved grandfather died (on my mother’s side). She knew that I was hurting and that I, too, did not get a chance to say goodbye, to tell him how much I loved him.
She said that I could still tell him. How? By writing him a letter. So I did. I even placed it later on his grave. That was a most comforting thing for me and I thought then and still do that he knew what I wrote or at least how I felt.
It’s interesting to me that this is a topic, heaven, on which a great many best-selling books and even movies have explored. One I especially remember is called, “Defending Your Life.” It had a lot of interesting ideas about what heaven was like. But my favorite was that heaven was a place where you could eat anything you wanted and as much as you wanted without gaining a single ounce. Sounds pretty heavenly to me and I imagine to most United Methodists!
I remember hearing about a priest and some people standing beside a grave of a woman. On her grave stone was inscribed, “No internet. No cell phones. Ahhh….” One of her friends explained, “Hey, that’s her idea of heaven.”
I’m not at all sure that we will ever be able to adequately describe heaven. Even the great Apostle Paul wrote, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither has it entered into the heart of man, all the things that God has prepared for those who love him…” (1 Corinthians 2:9). I take that to mean that heaven is just more wonderful than we can even begin to conceive. There are many subjects, heaven being one, that quickly reveals the limitations of our understanding and the poverty of our language.
But there is an image that has long come to my mind about heaven, though admittedly it is a very earthy one. It’s the one that I did share with my new beach buddy that day. It came to me years ago in of all places an airport…
I was sitting in the waiting area one day for my wife to return from a trip. Others were sitting all around me doing the same thing. We all kept looking up at the various screens that showed departures and arrivals, as well as watching the runways to get a glimpse of every incoming flight, excited to think that perhaps it was the one carrying a most precious soul. What a joyous place and sight when that plane landed, taxied to the unloading walk ways, and seeing persons run to and embrace someone more beloved to them than their own lives. Some were holding signs that said things like, “Welcome home, Daddy.” There were many tears of joy.
On the other side there was another area, but for persons waiting to depart. Many had a loved one or a whole family surrounding them. When the flight was called, there were also many hugs and tears. Parting is truly such sweet sorrow.
I had a brief chat with one of those persons, a mom, who was sending her daughter for a visit with relatives down in Florida. This woman seemed quite calm to me, much more so than I have been under similar circumstances. “Of course I’m anxious and a little sad,” she confessed to me. “But I trust her into God’s loving care. And I also know at the end of that flight there will be persons there who love her as much as I do, who will welcome her, provide for her, and protect her. Knowing who’s at end to greet her makes all the difference.”
Ah, that’s my favorite picture of what heaven is like. Having to say goodbye really, really hurts. Few things, if any, hurt more. But when you believe, when you know that there is One standing at the end ready to welcome, embrace and love them, well, it really does make all the difference in the world.
And it also makes it much easier when you are the one who is taking that final flight – knowing that there is One and many others who are there waiting for your arrival, to embrace you once again with hugs and tears of joy – a glorious reunion, and, yes, maybe even a sign or too. An aged friend of mine once told me that she thought her friends in heaven would greet her with a sign that said, “Gladys, you lived so long that we were starting to think you didn’t make it!”
Anyway, that’s at least a part of what heaven looks like to me – to be forever in the presence of all those whose love has also made this life a kind of heaven, too. Perhaps that’s what Charles Wesley was saying in the final verse of his great hymn, “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing”:
“In Christ, your head, you then shall know,
shall feel your sins forgiven;
anticipate your heaven below,
and own that love is heaven.”