As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
With the onset of COVID-19, the topic of death has invaded our daily thoughts and conversations in a way that many of us have never faced before. There have been tragedies like Sept. 11, 2001, and mass shootings that brought us to our knees for a time. But in most cases, those events happened somewhere else. To people we didn’t know.
In contrast, the Coronavirus is everywhere. And it’s likely by now we have all heard of someone not too far removed from ourselves who has died from this illness.
With death knocking so closely at our doorsteps, thoughts turn to the big questions: What happens to us after death? Is heaven real? And what’s it like there? As I struggle to answer these questions for myself, I recall the events of last summer.
With a warm breeze blowing off the peaceful lake, I listened to the cacophony of sounds: rustling leaves, chirping, whistling, croaking, and trilling. The tall grasses and wildflowers danced to the music that surrounded them.
This retreat, in these lovely surroundings, was exactly what I needed. I wondered, Is this what heaven is like?
Thoughts of heaven sent my mind spiraling into questions and doubts. Did heaven really exist? Where was it? And could I really believe in something I couldn’t see?
These questions had been weighing heavy on my mind since the unexpected death of our friend, John Nagle, a month earlier. Leaving behind a loving wife and two daughters, John was only 58. So close to my and my husband’s ages, I realized once again, the fragility of our life on this earth. I really wanted to believe in heaven. But was I convinced?
My fitness tracker buzzed on my wrist, letting me know I should walk 89 more steps before the hour was over. As my thoughts kept spinning, my body had to move as well. I lifted myself out of the comfortable sling chair, grabbed my camera, and strolled down to the shore.
Standing on the dock, I peered down through the murky water and thick seaweed. Bubbles came from the lake’s floor up to the surface, where they popped, leaving ripples that spiraled on the previously still water. With bubbles serving as evidence, I knew there was much more below the surface. I was convinced there was more life down there. Life I couldn’t see from my vantage point.
I lifted my camera to capture the peaceful mood and mystery that surrounded me. But how could a simple photo capture the sounds landing on my ears or the breeze upon my face? Even though “a picture is worth a thousand words,” a good photo with its limited, two-dimensional scope, still can’t capture the smells, sounds, tastes and “feels” of the camera’s surroundings.
Setting my camera down, I gazed over the water, sighed, and took a picture with my mind. I captured not only the sights and sounds and feels but also the peace that was gradually filling my soul.
This was only a small midwestern lake. Not much more than a pond. And yet, its shores moved me to sense God’s incredible power and love.
Two months later, I took in the opulence of Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. As we hiked along crystal blue lakes reflecting towering evergreens and cloud-piercing mountain tops, my eyes couldn’t get enough of the surrounding beauty. I wanted to capture it all. I took photo after photo so I could bring home the beauty and share the splendor with others.
Once again, the two-dimensional photos disappointed. Unable to capture the breadth and depth, the sounds, smells and feels of the mountains, the photo was only a murky image of what I had experienced in reality. Of the life that enveloped me in that glorious setting.
Along those mountain paths, my thoughts often turned to our friend John. I had called him in preparation for our trip, and he had shared that of all the National Parks he had been to (and he had been to nearly every one), Grand Teton was his favorite.
Then, a short time after I had talked to him, John was gone from this earth. We joined with hundreds of others at his funeral as we honored and celebrated his life. Along with many other achievements, John was an avid supporter of our national parks, a world traveler, and a talented photographer. At the reception following his funeral, we perused at least a dozen bound photo books filled with sights and natural wonders he had captured over the years. Mountains, lakes, waterfalls, wildlife. We were grateful to be privy to the marvelous works of creation he had seen. While he had the joy and privilege of experiencing these marvels first hand, he allowed us a tiny glimpse through his photos.
John was also a man of God. He lavished in the beauty of creation and experienced the love and glory of God through the bears and moose, the alpine peaks and raging rivers. And yet, according to 1 Cor. 13, just like the rest of us, he was only seeing “through a mirror dimly.”
None of us knows what heaven is like, but John does. He now sees God and all His beauty “face to face.” I try to imagine what that is like, but it’s beyond my imagination. I picture the most beautiful sight, sound and feel I’ve ever taken in. Something like the Grand Teton. Then I remember that even those wonders are only a reflection, a lesser-dimensional image of what we will experience when we get to heaven.
Even in this fallen, broken world in which we live, we can see, hear and feel such magnificent glory through God’s creation. During a global pandemic when the world as we know it comes to a halt, God’s faithfulness continues in flower blossoms, spring rains, and sunbeams through clouds. His creation is stunning and yet, what lies beyond the picture we see here is unfathomable.
When at last we’ve gone to glory, we too will see the entire picture. We’ll also experience, touch, smell, taste and hear the full richness of God’s glory as we stand in his presence. Our friend John was convinced of this. His favorite Bible passage, Rom. 8:37-39, was shared many times in the weeks after his death.
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
John and all those Christ-followers who have gone before us, now experience the love of God in ways that surpass anything we’ve experienced here on earth. They see face-to-face, while we look at a photo. With the assurance given to us by the apostle Paul, and shared by my friend John, I’m convinced.
For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. —1 Cor. 13:12