I’ve always wondered if heaven will feel familiar. When we arrive, will it be like walking down our street or eating at our favorite restaurant? I’m not sure, of course, but I can’t imagine it feeling foreign. When we get there, I don’t envision needing an orientation meeting. I doubt Peter is standing at the gates with a clipboard and red double-decker bus, instructing us to board for the four o’clock sight-seeing tour. No, I imagine heaven is familiar. Instead of feeling lost, we recognize the sights and sounds. It will feel like going home.
There was a sweet lady who lived at a retirement home nearby our church. Her name was Thelma. Every couple of months, I’d go to a special Sunday afternoon service at this retirement home. About ten or twelve residents would gather in a TV room to have church. We’d play hymns on the piano, give a brief message, and take communion. It started at three o’clock in the afternoon. Usually by that time I was exhausted, so getting there was always tough. But, like most things, once you were there, you were glad you came. The same residents showed up week after week. It was always a special time with lots of singing and laughing. I loved listening to one resident named Bob sing How Great Thou Art. He only knew the chorus part –How Great Thou Art–so he’d belt it out every time, right on cue and right on pitch. He really knew how to hit that one note. He did it so forcibly the first time I jumped in my chair.
Thelma was a little lady in her eighties who was never late. She always wore sweaters and a matching knit hat, no matter the weather outside. With coke bottle glasses, deep dark eyes, and her hair perfectly straight, she peered up at you as she sat in her wheelchair and smiled in a polite sort of way. No matter how good or bad the singing was, or how the message went for that matter, she was glad to be there. I don’t know how she did it, but Thelma held the group together. I heard her say the same phrase at least two dozen times in the span of a few years. Every person in the group would get a graceful hand on their shoulder, and Thelma would simply say, “Jesus loves you. I love you. And that is all that matters.” She said that to me a few times and I believed her. Those words were rich and life-giving. I looked forward to the gathering just be near her and see her polite smile.
I remember one day I showed up and Thelma wasn’t there. Immediately, I knew why. She had never missed a Sunday afternoon church service in the couple of years I’d been attending. One of the residents told me she passed away. I left that day with an ache in my heart. Death is like that, even for someone who has lived a long, full life. Death is welcomed but never fully understood.
We used to have a kid who came to our youth group named Jared. He was a little rough around the edges—foul mouthed, rebellious towards authority and a wisecrack. I liked him a lot. He’d always came to youth group early so he could play basketball in the gym. Often times on Wednesdays, we’d be shooting hoops for around an hour or so. Our games ranged from intense battles of horse to the around the world, but always found their way to a game of one on one. I loved shooting hoops with Jared. We didn’t say much. Every once in a while we’d talk about life, high school and God. Jared made me laugh every week. During our youth service I could always count on him to participate in whatever game or challenge we had. Moreover, I could also count on him to make the perfectly timed inappropriate comment. Every youth group needs a Jared. Eventually, Jared and his family moved out of California. I didn’t hear from Jared for the longest time.
One day we got news that Jared was in a car accident. He was still in high school when he died. A lot of our kids remembered Jared. They were friends. They were struck with a concrete example of how fragile and unpredictable life is. A number of our students attended his funeral that was held back in California. I remember thinking about Jared. I missed this rambunctious, foul-mouthed kid that played basketball with me before youth group. And I wasn’t the only one. I remember logging onto MySpace (back when people did that). Jared’s page was still up and was filled with comments from classmates and friends. I’d never seen anything like it before.
People left messages saying they missed him and that he was special. But there were a few messages I didn’t expect to see. Some of the comments were by people who knew of Jared but didn’t know him. They said things like “ You seemed cool. I wish I would have talked to you more.” Or, “We had English together. We didn’t talk or anything. I wish we would have. I hope you’re doing alright now.” The condolences and comments went on for page after page. I read those comments with the familiar ache in my heart.
I’ve always wondered if God becomes a little jealous that certain individuals are on earth and not in heaven. This jealously can’t stand the separation so they get called home a little sooner. A kind, gentle soul like Thelma is now at home, offering her encouragement and love in new beautiful ways. I bet she still makes it to service on time. And an energetic kid who loved basketball is making new friends and sharing plenty of his smart aleck comments. I bet they love that stuff up there.
I’ve had to deal with death quite a bit in my life thus far. It’s never easy to say goodbye. Death never feels timely. But it also never feels final. I love when Jesus says in the Scriptures he is going to prepare a place for us. His Father’s house has many rooms and banquet tables, and there is plenty of room at his table. Heaven is described as a wedding feast. This means heaven is full of merriment and partying, like one giant family reunion. Death doesn’t seem as scary when we realize we’re not saying goodbye; instead, we’re just going home.
I think about Thelma and Jared often. I know they’ve both gone home. After a long journey, nothing is better than finally getting back to where you belong. It’s good to go home. If heaven turns out to be familiar, then the transition from here to there will be a natural one. It will be like waking up from a deep slumber and welcoming the morning with open arms. The coffee is hot and fresh and a newspaper is on your front porch. You have the sensation that something is slightly different but not in a bad way. It’s as if you’ve known about heaven all along, and finally you’ve reached your true home.