One of my favorite authors and preachers, Frederick Buechner, has wondered what Heaven is like. With me, he believes we can get a foretaste of heaven right here on earth. Buechner writes: “To speak of ‘heavenly’ music or a ‘heavenly’ day isn’t always to gush but sometimes to catch a glimpse of something.”
Upon experiencing something that is soooo good, perhaps we have all said, “Ahhhh! This is heaven!” A bite of chocolate cake. A warm cookie with cold milk. A lover’s touch. A faithful friend. A child’s hug. A walk on a beach or in the snow. Resting one’s head on your mother’s shoulders. Undeserved forgiveness. Unconditional love. Unwavering devotion. Unexplained strength.
I heard a another preacher describe it this way: Heaven is sort of like this perfect room on the second floor of the house. It is a room upstairs where we are not yet permitted to enter from our position in a room here on the first floor.
However, there is this small, tiny hole in the ceiling of our room. And if we position ourselves just so under that hole. At just the right angle. At just the right moment. If the light is just so. The shadows fade and we can see a little of that room. We can catch a glimpse of Heaven.
Greta will tell you that one thing that she will never forget is her mother recalling the moments after Greta was born, and specifically that moment Janice held her for the first time. As soon as the doctor handed Greta to her, as she held Greta in her arms, pressed her lips to kiss Greta’s forehead, and said Greta was “as warm as toast.”
Greta, you will always remember that, because your mother was describing a moment for her that was nothing less than heavenly. As she held you in her arms, as she loved you as she loved Bradley and Sarah, with a love that was out of this world, that hole in the ceiling got a lot larger for your mother. The light got just right, the shadows faded and heaven came down.
The Bible paints many portraits of the widening of this hole in the ceiling.
The prophet Isaiah prays for such widening:
Shower, O heavens, from above,
and let the skies rain down righteousness;
let the earth open, that salvation may spring up,
and let it cause righteousness to sprout up also;
I the Lord have created it. (Isa 45).
Ezekiel writes about the glimpses of heaven he experienced:
In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the river Chebar, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. (Ezekiel 1).
Malachi talks about opening a window to heaven,
…see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing (Malachi 3).
John talks about opening a door to heaven:
After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this’ (Revelation 4).
And then we have those beautiful recollections of Jesus’ baptism as the Gospel Writers describe the heavens opening up. Mark literally says the heavens were “ripped apart” as the Spirit of God descended like a dove.
Greta and Sarah, I do not believe either one of you will ever forget the many ways that your mother helped to open up the heavens for you, to make that tiny hole in the ceiling a little wider, to move you to just the right position, to be in just the right light, at just the right angle, for the many times she caused heaven to only open but to actually come down so close to earth that you could feel it, hear it, smell it, and touch it.
When we study the Bible, from the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt, through the occupation of Israel by Babylon, to the oppression of Christians by the Roman Empire—from the tribulations of Job, the persecution of Daniel, through the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus, to the trials and hardships of the Apostles Paul and John, the one theme that is constant is the divine strength, the holy resoluteness, the sacred presence of God in difficult times.
Greta and Sarah, you and Bradley, all of her grandchildren have witnessed this miraculous strength in ways that you are still trying to, but may never comprehend. Whatever storm came her way, divorce, death and disease, her love for you never failed, in fact, it never even wavered. Her love for you was indeed out of this world. No matter her circumstance she was always there with you, never away from you, always for you, never against you.
She possessed this supernatural strength, this holy fire, this divine determination to always be there to give any of you what you needed. Janice became a single-parent when Bradley was 11, Sarah was 9 and Greta was 2, and although she experienced the grief and sorrow of divorce, she never let you kids see it. She remained dedicated to her job as a legal Clerk and later with ABF to make sure that your needs were always met. If she ever went into her room, closed the door and cried, you never knew it. Her love was selfless. Her love was sacrificial. It was self-expending. It was heavenly. And there is no wonder that you look back on your childhood today, at her love and care and strength, and ponder, “How in the world did she do that?” In her strength, you were catching a glimpse of heaven.
During this Advent season, we celebrate another moment when the heavens were opened, when a choir of angels filled the skies to announce the birth of a baby.
John describes the announcement this way,
See what love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are (1 John 3:1).
Through the gift of a baby born in Bethlehem, we are all born into the family of God. Through this baby named Jesus, we have been made family.
For 20 years, Janice worked as a legal clerk here in Fort Smith. When she left that position to work for ABF, she grieved. Why? Because her co-workers there in the legal office had become family to her. The same thing happened while she was at ABF.
Janice was not a member of the church or the denomination with which I serve as pastor. She was a proud member of the Church of Christ.
When she first moved to Methodist Village, one of her big concerns was that they were going to make her a Methodist. To illustrate this, the first weekend she moved into Methodist Village this past April, they had a tornado warning. The protocol for a tornado warning is to place identification tags on a lanyard around the necks of all the residents. When they placed a name tag around Janice’s neck, she wasn’t so much concerned about the possible tornadoes as she was about her name being printed under the word “Methodist.” She took one look at her badge and said, “I knew it. They have made me Methodist!”
So when I would visit her at Methodist Village and others would ask her if I was her pastor, she would immediately respond: “Oh no. He is my daughter’s pastor.”
This makes it all the more special some of the last words she spoke to me. She looked up at me said, “I love you.” Janice loved me, not as her pastor, but as family.
With those three simple words, “I love you”, she moved me. She moved to just the right spot, to that spot where the light was just right, to that spot where the shadows faded, and just for a moment, I could see through that hole in the ceiling, and I caught a glimpse of heaven.
This is the power of love. Love has the power to make strangers family. Although we have different faiths and different beliefs, love has the power to unite us all as sisters and brothers. And when we love one another like family, when we treat one another as sisters and brothers, the heavens are ripped apart!
Since I have been a pastor here in Fort Smith, I have been impressed with the quality of care and love I have witnessed through the good people who work and serve at Methodist Village. They truly love and care for the residents as family. So each time I go out there, every time I visit, I catch a glimpse of heaven.
As I’ve mentioned, when Janice first became a resident of Methodist Village, it took her a little while to accept it. At first, it was a strange place, a place where she did not belong. After all, as she would tell me, there were “old people” living there. She assumed that her stay there would only be temporary. She would get a little rehab and then go home.
So, who could blame her for not immediately embracing nursing home residency and all of the activities and programs they offered. When she first arrived, if you wanted to visit Janice, you knew that you could always find Janice in her room. She wouldn’t be in dining hall with the other residents tossing a bean bag or playing bingo.
One day, when Sarah came to visit, like always she went straight to her room, but Janice was not there. She walked down to the nurses’ station where they would sometimes seat her, but Janice was not there. She searched the entire facility until she finally asked someone for assistance.
They said, “Well, today is Tie Dye Day! Perhaps she is with the other residents making a Tie Dye!”
Sarah immediately responded, “Oh, I don’t think so.” But they went down to the dining room anyway where everyone was tie dyeing, and there she was.
She was sitting there wearing this tie dye wrap, or scarf, or hat that she had made on her head. And she was holding this clapper in one hand, this hand that made a clapping noise when you moved it back and forth.
She looked up at Sarah. And waving the clapper in one hand and holding up a peace sign with the other, giggled and said, “I am having a tie-dye moment! And I am ready to party.”
Sarah responded the way that most of us respond these days when we catch a glimpse of something like this, something beautiful, something fun, something that warms our heart and makes us smile, something that is soooo good that we can only describe it as heavenly. She pulled out her phone and took a picture and sent it to Greta.
And the good news is that this picture of Janice having a tie-dye moment, is a picture of Janice today. Through the tiny hole in the ceiling, we can see her today, sitting in the banquet hall of heaven, surrounded by family including her son Bradley, enveloped by eternal love, encircled by amazing grace, giggling, clapping, partying.
And because of that, we who grieve today know we are going to be ok. Greta and Sarah are going to be fine. Her grandchildren are going to be fine. Not only because your mother and grandmother has given you some of her strength and love (after all, you said you only needed a piece of it to be ok), but because you will be able to always see her, she will always be with you, each time something moves you to just the right spot, at just the right angle, when the light is just right, and the shadows fade, and this warmth comes over you, as warm as toast.