My husband helped a friend drag his ice shanty off the lake Sunday afternoon. It was cold for March and our friend brought his toddler to play with my kids while they worked. The little guy arrived with his backpack full of extra diapers, snacks and juice and I pulled out trucks and trains from the toy closet. I scooped him up with a smile but he looked back with arms outstretched and wanted to be with his Daddy. There was a goodbye, a closed door and tears. Eventually the distractions of toys, a houseful of kids and snacks dried the tears but every now and then he’d shuffle over to the door, point and say, “Daddy?”
As I pacified the little boy with some goldfish crackers, I looked in his teary eyes and I knew how he felt. He wanted his people and we weren’t them. He was waiting for the one he loved to open the door.
I’ve been feeling homesick myself. I’ve had this vague feeling of separation anxiety. Last week I drove on familiar roads leading to familiar places and a sense of belonging stirred. This was where ‘my people’ lived and had lived for generations. This is where my memories lived and the hills and back roads and houses are brimming with them. Strangely though, one of those memories is that even when I lived there, there was a feeling, even on those familiar roads, that I didn’t fully belong. I was homesick in the only home I ever knew.
My grandfather married my grandmother just a few months short of seventy years ago; just days after they said their vows, he left to fight in the war on the other side of the world. Their daughter was born while he was away and he came home to a little girl almost a year old.
That baby, my aunt, died of cancer several years ago. My grandmother died on Saturday.
I had always heard that my grandmother wasn’t interested in Christianity. My grandfather would have gone to church but she didn’t want any part of it. I stood in her kitchen on Friday and my grandfather told me through his tears that things had changed this past year. Grammy had prayed a prayer of faith and belief. Her heart softened and she found hope and grace in the message of the gospel.
When doubts enter in, I find that I have a default religion. In our own way, on our own paths, we’re all headed home and will end up in a better place. It’s what we hear over and over when someone dies. This is a familiar road my heart travels. It says that a decision my grandmother made doesn’t make any difference. The love and beauty of my grandmother’s life is enough and she will either rest peacefully or if there is a heaven the doors will be flung open. It says there is no need for what Jesus did on the cross. In some ways this seems bigger, more universal, more satisfying on the surface than my Christian faith. Strangely though, it leaves an emptiness. It doesn’t ring true or complete.
In the kitchen, with my grandmother a room away and the life fading from her body, the cross made all the difference in the world to my grandfather and me. It didn’t just put a mask on the ugliness of death; it faced it head on and said that it wouldn’t have the victory. It opened up the floodgates of hope and it meant that when my grandfather finishes his commission here, she will be waiting once again with my aunt for him in Heaven.
But still there’s a nagging thought in my grief this week. A familiar thought. What if I didn’t have the assurance my grandfather gave me that day in the kitchen? Can I live with a religion that says there is such a thing as Hell? Do I really believe such a place could exist and that someone from this world could end up there?
One day a spider made his way into our house on a log destined for our woodstove. Just as I was putting the log in the fire I saw him start to scurry from his hiding place. As I saw him there, looking for a way of escape, I was overcome with a sense of guilt and of my power. If I tried really hard I might have been able to save him. I didn’t try. I left him to the smoke and the flames and the heat and as I closed the door, I felt wicked. The spider had done nothing deserving of being burnt up. I had made a calloused decision to let him die. I had sent him to his own Hell. It wasn’t fair.
I left, or tried to leave, Christianity once for this reason. I could not reconcile a God of love with the idea of Hell. I decided my empty, default religion was preferable. I believe in love, in gentleness, in beauty. That’s where I want to live. That’s the religion I want to cling to.
So, then, what do I do with what isn’t love and gentleness and beauty? This world is not the Utopia my default religion would like to create apart from God. There is evil. If I existed in a world where there is only love and kindness and children never got sick or were abused or starved, and someone told me about this world, I would say there is no way a loving God could let something like this be. This world with its pain and hate and awfulness could never exist. But it does. And if I’m honest, I know that the evil I see in the world exists in my very own heart. I’m not as innocent as the spider that I left in the fire.
I found myself praying even after I told myself I had given up Jesus. The truth is that I need him more than I need to have answers to all my questions. Who God is draws me back even when I don’t understand His ways. One day as I struggled in prayer, verses about thanking God came into my mind. There was one thing I had never thought to thank God for and that was Hell. What could there possibly be to thank him for about that? But, maybe out of obedience, maybe as an experiment, I said the words, “God, thank you for Hell.” And, then, I found I could keep talking. “Thank you that you overcome evil. Thank you that the things I hate about Hell… like pain and death, hate and suffering… you want to destroy.” God is not neutral or calloused about pain and suffering. He is not going to let evil continue.
There is so much I don’t understand. But I know He is good. I know that what has been revealed about His character means that He is trustworthy.
I’ve been looking at a lot of photographs of my grandmother. In just a few moments I can flip through photos of her as a child, a young wife and mother, a grandmother. I knew her for my thirty five years as her grand-daughter. There is so much of her life that I didn’t experience. Even during the years I was part of her life, there were parts of her that weren’t mine to know. We each knew her differently. Only One person knew her from the time she was forming in in my great-grandmothers belly until the time she lay on the bed in a stream of light from her window breathing her last days’ worth of breath. He knows her now. He knows her completely.
Today, my grandmother is the same woman in all the old photographs, but because her heart clung to Jesus at the end of this life, she is new as well. Grace changes us. Jesus said that when we finally see him we’ll be like him because we’ll see him as he really is. We’ll see reality apart from the evil that is in this world and in our own hearts. My grandmother is more like herself than she’s ever been before.
I can’t wait to see her again in the beauty she wears in Heaven.
And, until I make my way there myself, there will probably always be something in me that feels like the little boy at my house waiting for his daddy. There’s a little insecurity, a little doubt. There are a lot of questions that aren’t answered. But on Sunday, when the door finally opened, the little boy squealed and bounced for joy and was in his daddy’s arms and the reunion was complete. He was in the place he belonged with the one who loved him.
Someday the door will swing open for each of us. What we believe about the one who is on the other side means the difference between running and hiding as from a stranger or seeing him as our loving father and running into his arms. Faith can seem too simple, too narrow. But Jesus said that to enter the kingdom of God, we need faith like a little child. Faith is what knows and trusts the sound of our Father’s steps and waits with outstretched arms.