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From the March/April, 2012 issue of Touchstone

 

Heaven’s Gate by Gary A. Fritz

Heaven’s Gate

Gary A. Fritz on Touching Eternity Through the Death of a Believer

In the summer of 2010 my son Micah set out on a short-term mission trip to Panama. Naturally, my wife and I took him to the airport, whereupon I was reminded again of the sad new world in which we live. Upon checking his luggage, instead of venturing down to the gate to see him off, we were forced to exchange our hugs and bid adieu as Micah joined the long, arduous line at the security checkpoint. Regrettably, gone are the days when airports were fully accessible to anyone who wished to meet or send off friends or family right at the gate.

As a child, I was always enthralled at the prospect of going to the airport. It was a magical place of adventure and mystery. Watching the monstrous jets land and take off invited the imagination to places such as New York City, Paris, or Rome. What is more, in being able actually to walk to the gate to say good-bye or welcome someone home, and to see the jet and all the passengers, I was able to become a part of the trip in a small way. If we were sending someone off, I was connected to the trip and to the destination. If someone was flying in, I was likewise connected in some mystical, yet physical manner to where they had been.

And that was precisely what I was missing when we dropped off our son for his journey. Denied to me was that connection to both the experience and the destination. Moreover, I would not even be able to see the jet that would fly him on his adventure.

Taken to the Gate

One morning shortly before Thanksgiving of that same year, I had a connecting experience of a different kind, but one illustrated by a send-off at the airport. On that particular morning, I sat in the living room of a dear woman, Christa, who was dying of cancer. For some six years the disease had attacked and ravaged, but never defeated her. Being in the presence of this woman of deep faith in Jesus Christ was one of the most exhilarating experiences I have ever had, for without trying, she was able to take me to the gate. In a profound sense, while she was waiting in the terminal for her flight to leave, I was able to join her for a brief moment at the point of embarkation. There I sat, chatting with someone who very likely would be in the presence of our Lord within days, perhaps weeks, certainly no more than a few months. It was almost surreal, more so than being in the presence of a jet that would soon land far away.

Imagine, if you will, knowingly chatting with and touching someone who would soon be doing the same with the risen, victorious Jesus Christ. Perhaps that is an odd thing to consider. I realize full well that a significant chasm exists between our world and the “hereafter.” As Christians, we do not embrace the Egyptian-like belief in sending the dead into the netherworld with possessions and tokens that will help them in the afterlife. But it was tantalizing to imagine that here, in Christa, a person who would soon be “there,” I could reach out and almost touch eternity. When I touched her hand, I was keenly aware that she would soon be touching Jesus. The sensation was like the one I had when watching the end clips from the movie The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, specifically the scene in which the wardrobe stands alone in the otherwise empty room, its door slightly ajar, and emanating from within it the unmistakable, beckoning light that could only be shining out of Narnia.

In this case, Christa’s bags were already packed, so to speak, and she was indeed ready for her trip. When she talked about her death, her eyes brightened as she considered going to meet her Lord. These were not the ramblings of a woman in some medically induced stupor, longing to be rid of the pain. This was the anticipation of a faithful pilgrim who was ready to leave this vale of tears, the “shadowlands,” as C. S. Lewis called life here, and move “further up and further in.”

Something to Anticipate

Christa was at a place in both life and faith where she spoke about her death with the anticipation of an excited traveler. As her guest, I found this invigorating. All too often the topic of death is avoided, treated as a morbid reality to be sidestepped except when absolutely inevasible. Generally, we give a wide berth to the “valley of the shadow of death.” While death is a pilgrimage that we all must make, many seem to approach the topic with an air of denial—pretending that it only happens to others, ignoring it, and, like a student with his homework, hoping it will go away.

On the other hand, there are those who, like Christa, grasp the vision of eternity as something to anticipate. Recently, a student of mine turned in a paper that commented on Revelation 21:3–4, where the Apostle John paints a highly inviting picture of the New Jerusalem:

Behold, the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain for the old order of things has passed away.

In comment, this student wrote

When I really think about this, I get really excited. I feel like life is very insignificant and small. I think of the passage, “what is man that you are mindful of him” but he is mindful of us and he loves us. Life is only going to get better and better. . . . I know that it’s something that I’m definitely looking forward to!

Sitting with Christa that day, I took some time to read to her from Revelation, from the immortal words of John as he paints pictures of peace in the presence of God, of how “the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd. He will lead them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” I also read the final paragraphs from C. S. Lewis’s The Last Battle, where he narrates the end of Narnia, the deaths of the Pevensie children, and their journey into the real Narnia:

And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever; in which every chapter is better than the one before.

A Broken & Useless Weapon

For some, however, death is the conquering weapon that is wielded by evil. It is with good reason that Philip Yancey, in his book What’s So Amazing About Grace, says, “No Christian resurrected to new life should be pining for the grave. Sin has the stench of death about it. Why would anyone choose it?” Indeed, I know for certain that Christa was not “pining for the grave.” She did, like Yancey, recognize that death is the outcome of a world fallen into disarray, rebellion, and decay. If sin has the stench of death, the converse is equally true. Death has the stench of sin as well. And that is the vile appearance of evil conquering. Those who lack a saving faith are mired in the morass of that defeat.

The day that I sat with Christa, she shared the heart-wrenching story of a younger woman, in her late thirties, who was in Christa’s cancer support group. This woman died in early 2010, leaving behind a husband and several young children. She was not, according to Christa, a woman who embraced the Christian faith, and so she died under the dark cloud of unbelief. Christa expressed acute sadness as she recounted the immense grief that accompanied her friend’s funeral.

Mourning is a natural response when we stand at the casket or grave of a loved one. It is to be expected and, quite frankly, is a healthy response to this weapon of evil. But Christa clearly differentiated between Christian grief and the oppressive weight that bore down upon the family and friends gathered at the funeral of her friend.

However, what is so wonderfully amazing is that God can take the most brutal weapon of the enemy and turn it around, rendering evil impotent. When I teach the Book of Revelation, I lay the foundation by first discussing the kingdom of God, how it is the kingdom that is the heart and soul of everything Jesus said and did. I attempt to paint a picture of the kingdom of God locked in mortal combat with the kingdom of Evil, embodied especially in the seven-headed red dragon. If death is the conquering weapon of victory for the dragon and his kingdom, that weapon lies broken and useless if the dragon and his kingdom are defeated. One of the great truths from the Apocalypse is that the dragon fights ferociously against the kingdom of God not because he is strong, but because he is defeated.

Something to Live With

February 7, 2011, dawned like any other school day—shuffling through the early morning routine and then off to class. Shortly before lunch, an email brought the news that Christa had, at last, passed into her heavenly home. For her, the long battle was finished, and my first thought was of my dear friend stepping through the door, the light beaming in a way indescribable with mere human words. I could not help but smile as I imagined our Lord, arms extended, smiling, and perhaps welcoming Christa with Aslan’s words, “‘The dream is ended; this is the morning.’ Welcome, my good and faithful servant.” As for her funeral, it was exactly as it should be—a celebration, not only of her life, but also of an eternity that we all can touch, if only we live now in the embrace of the One who has gone to prepare a place for us.

For my part, I write this commentary on a computer that bears a document titled, “For the Death of Gary Fritz.” Upon opening it, the reader would find detailed instructions for my funeral. Everything is there: the Scripture texts to be read, the songs to be sung, guidelines for the funeral message. Most assuredly, I do not look forward to or desire death. Rather, what I yearn for is life, real life. Undoubtedly, this is what the Apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote to the Philippians, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” For Paul, touching eternity was paramount, as being with Christ “is better by far.”

Atheists may play the other side of the issue and mock this as pie in the sky, but that is hardly surprising. In truth, they are to be pitied, for they have no hope. The writer of Hebrews reminds us that faith is not blind, and neither is hope, for “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” That is something I can live with, to be sure, and how much more so having touched eternity.

Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. letters@touchstonemag.com

 

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“Heaven’s Gate” first appeared in the March/April 2012 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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