A few weeks ago, my devastated and ailing grandmother left her home for the first time in over a year to attend her son’s graveside funeral. He was my Uncle Roger, swept away rather suddenly from this earth at too young an age. Having bought a number of cemetery plots, my grandmother recognized that the very place where she sat to mourn my uncle was the place reserved for her. It was a plot between her late husband (who had been gone for nearly forty years) and her other son (my Uncle Bobby) who died suddenly five years before.
Less than a week later, my grandmother took her final breath, and one week later, she was laid to rest on that very spot in the earth.
The image of that cemetery the day we buried my grandmother will forever be engrained in my mind: seeing my grandmother’s casket next to her only two sons, the fresh soil over my Uncle Roger’s grave, the thought of two funerals in the span of a week for a little family named Slaton. It was too much death to bear at once.
I came home that weekend from saying goodbye to two family members, and a couple of days later, I stood in the hospital alongside many friends, saying goodbye to a good friend named Terry Suttles. A dear saint who made the matters of heaven a priority in her life, she took residence in her heavenly home about a week ago.
If I had to sum up 2014 for you, it would sound like a eulogy – a year where too many people (both little ones and older ones) have passed away.
Some months ago, I sat in the living room of a couple who had just experienced the devastation of a miscarriage. Having lost our fourth child in-utero three years ago, ministering to those who have also suffered a miscarriage has become a familiar ministry for myself and my wife Karlene. I offered to pray with this couple, and when I closed my eyes, I got this incredible yet brief vision.
There in a beautiful meadow, I saw our children standing together. This was the second vision I had of our daughter Hope, and she looked the same as the first vision I saw of her – a perfect little girl, appearing to be no more than nine-years-old, long, straight dark hair, and stoic yet lively eyes. It’s hard to explain, but when I think about her face, it looks like the face of a child but with the wisdom and knowledge of someone who has lived a long, long time.
“I got this glimpse of our children playing together,” I told this couple. “I can only imagine what heaven will be like – this amazing reunion with our lost children who have been living for eternity.”
Eternity is an impossible concept to grasp. We often think of this life ending and eternal life beginning, but I like something that Dr. Bill Smith said, “Eternity is not something screwed on to the end of this life; it’s entering into a world with no time.” In fact, Jesus didn’t say, “Eternal life begins when you die.” No, He said, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3).
I’ve begun to think of eternity by comparing it with a familiar story – The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The story begins with four children fleeing to the English countryside when Nazi Germany bombs their hometown of London. Their world is suddenly turned upside down – no family, no friends, no familiar landscapes. Yet in that foreign land, in a professor’s estate that they temporarily made as their home, they discovered a wardrobe – a magical portal to a land called Narnia.
No matter how much time they spent in Narnia, no time passed on earth. They became part of a an epic, they learned to fight, they defeated the White Witch, and they became kings and queens. So much happened in their adventure that they forgot about their lives in the English countryside back on earth. As they pushed their way through the fir trees at a vaguely familiar place, they found themselves back in a wardrobe full of fur coats. In a moment, they transformed from young adults back to little children. Years of adventure had taken place in Narnia, but on the other side of the wardrobe, not a minute had passed.
While the story ends there, I often wonder what their lives would have been like. They may have appeared to be four little children, but the reality that they shared was a lifetime of adventures on the other side of the wardrobe.
In those visions, when I stare into the eyes of a little girl I never got to know here on earth, I realize that the Kingdom of God is now. It may not have taken over this earth yet, but it doesn’t mean it’s something only relegated to the future. When I think about July 9, 2011, and what I was doing here on earth, I think about holding a tiny lifeless human being. I think about the tears and the overwhelming pain. I think about the loss, and the grief, and wondering if the heartache would ever go away. But when I stare at her across the wardrobe, I see a little girl who seems to have lived for an eternity.
When I think about those who have passed away, I think particularly about those who fought long, hard battles with illnesses, and I imagine them slowly stepping through the wardrobe. Individuals like my grandmother and Terry both lived with a mission of caring for others. I think their resolve to care for others added many days to their lives. But I also think that the closer they got to heaven, the more they stepped through the wardrobe and experienced Narnia, the more the fears of leaving this earth subsided. Death can invoke great fear and uncertainty, particularly of leaving behind our loved ones and our responsibilities. I think heaven has a way of putting those fears to rest.
I imagine that the brave new world of heaven doesn’t seem like an unfamiliar landscape when we first enter it. I tend to believe that we’ll feel more at home than in the world we called home. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, “You have written eternity on our hearts.” St. Augustine prayed, “God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.” John Eldredge comments that when we find God, we actually find our hearts. We feel more like ourselves. Why wouldn’t heaven carry the same familiarity that we find when we find God?
The truth is that eternity is now, and when we experience God, we experience a heightened sense of reality. Something you’re doing now is affecting a world without time and space – a world that you will not only experience one day but are actually more familiar with than you realize. One extraordinary aspect about Jesus was that He had an eternal perspective in this temporal world. It was as though He could see both sides of the wardrobe simultaneously in a way that we cannot. In Luke 10, when the disciples reported to Jesus that even the demons had submitted to them in His Name, Jesus replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18). He could see that one side of the wardrobe was affecting the other.
For us standing on this side, we have loss, grief, and incredible wounds. But right now, beyond a doorway we can neither see nor touch, there is a world filled with the laughter we once heard or never got the chance to hear. On this side, we see a world where life begins and ends. On the other side, there is a world where adventures go on and on while not an earthly minute passes. We think of death as Satan’s greatest triumph. In reality, Jesus has redeemed death, fashioning it into a wardrobe – an avenue through which we enter the greatest part of life.
“My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:26).