Heaven and Hell

A monk was deep in his prayers when an angel appeared to him and offered to reveal to him any of the divine mysteries. The monk said to the Angel, “show me Heaven and Hell.”

Suddenly the monk and the Angel were in a large banquet hall. There was a large table filled with every good food you could imagine. There was succulent turkey, fresh from the oven, hot bread and butter, any side you could want, and delicious cakes for dessert. All the guests looked pale and sickly. The monk noticed that they were chained to their chairs and that they each had large metal rods shackled to their arms. Unable to leave their chairs or bend their elbows, the monk watched in horror as the guests at the banquet were unable to feed themselves any of this delicious food. They'd pick it up and drop it over and over and cry out in hunger, unable to get any of the food to their mouths.

“This,” said the Angel, grimly, “is Hell.”

“I cannot bear to watch their suffering any longer,” said the monk, “please show me heaven.”

Just as suddenly the monk and the Angel were in a differen banquet hall. There was also a large table filled with every good food you could imagine and all the guests here too were chained to their chairs and they each had large metal rods shackled to their arms. But these guests were not crying out in anguish. To the contrary, they were singing and laughing. They were not pale and sickly like the guests in the room before. These people were happy, healthy, and content. The monk watched closely and suddenly realized the difference between the two rooms. In this room each was picking up food and feeding his neighbor.

I love this old parable and I can't help but think about it every time I take communion. Especially on nights like tonight when Churches come together to celebrate that new command: “to love one another…” This particular Maundy Thursday, I'm struck by the irony that there is a national debate centering around the question of who Christians should have to serve. The legal issues involved are above my pay grade but it is hard for me to imagine that the Christ who welcomes all to His table would not want His disciples to do the same. In the Gospels, Jesus set aside his right to exclude people from his table and was criticized for the company he kept. This parable reminds us that it is our humility and our service that makes Heaven out of Hell. In the early Church, our self sacrificing love was indeed our defining characteristic and one of the chief ways we patterned our lives after Christ. The same Christ whose outstretched arms are marvelously depicted in the words of the old hymn: “Come Ye sinners poor and needy, weak and wounded, sick and sore/ Jesus, ready, stands to save you, full of pity, love, and power…”

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

 

Advertisements

The Special Exception

A very rich man was nearing the end of his life and he began to contemplate the life to come. He was very troubled that he would soon lose everything he had worked so hard for. All his wealth would soon belong to others and he would enter Paradise poor. It didn’t seem fair to him so he prayed fervently that he would be allowed to take all that he had amassed with him. One night an angel appeared to him.

“O mortal,” said the Angel, “All men come into this world empty handed and empty handed they must go to the next…”

The man pled, “I have worked so hard for what I have and I have no family to leave it to… Can there be no exception made?”

The angel thought for a second. “This is highly irregular but I will see what I can do…”

Suddenly the Angel disappeared then just as suddenly, he reappeared and said, “A special exception has been made. You may bring with you what you can pack into one suitcase.”

After the Angel had again left, the man went and found his largest suitcase and packed it full with gold bars and laid it by his bed for the day of his death.

Sure enough the fateful day came and the man died. The man grabbed his suitcase just as his soul was leaving his body and took it with him. There at the gates of heaven, the man dragged the impossibly heavy suitcase all through the winding line to meet St. Peter. When it was finally the man’s turn, St. Peter looked at him and them down at his suitcase and said, “you know you can’t bring that in, right?”

The man confidently replied that he had been given assurances by an Angel that he would be allowed the one suitcase. St. Peter excused himself, and went back behind the pearly gates to conference with one of the Angels. When he returned, St. Peter apologized.

“It seems a special exception has been made in your case. I was, however asked to inspect the contents of your suitcase before letting you through.”

The man happily obliged and St. Peter unlatched the suitcase. As he surveyed the contents of the suitcase there was a look of pure confusion on his face. He shouted back to the Angels behind him:

“All this fuss over a suitcase full of pavement?”

What we value and what God values are often two very different things. This old church joke perfectly illustrates how the things we see as so precious and so worth our pursuit here on earth might be mundane and unimpressive on the streets of gold. Jesus admonishes us to store up treasures in heaven. As disciples we are called to reject what the world values and seek after the things that God values. This means denying our own desires and taking up our cross. It would be a terrible thing if we were to come to the end of our life and all we had to show for it was a suitcase full of pavement.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

 

St. Bede’s Sparrow

During the 7th century, King Edwin of Northumbria was trying to decide, after hearing the teaching of the missionary Paulonius, whether to allow Christians to preach in his Kingdom and whether to convert to Christianity himself. He consulted some of his advisers, the final of which gave him this sage advice:

“The present life of man upon earth, O King, seems to me in

comparison with that time which is unknown to us like the

swift flight of a sparrow through mead-hall where you sit

at supper in winter, with your Ealdormen and thanes,

while the fire blazes in the midst and the hall is warmed,

but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad.

The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out

at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry

tempest, but after a short space of fair weather, he im-

mediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter

to winter again. So this life of man appears for a

little while, but of what is to follow or what went before

we know nothing at all. If, therefore, this new doctrine

tells us something more certain, it seems

justly to be followed in our kingdom.”

The above quotation from “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People” by the Venerable Bede, is likely more legend than history. But what a powerful image of the fleeting nature of life. King Edwin’s adviser knew that this life is short and that what comes before and after is vast and mysterious. He also knew that some certainty could give life purpose and meaning. Even the Christian mourns the dead and trembles at the thought of losing his grip on life, yet we live lives anchored in hope that what we do here, in the short time we are here, matters. We have some glimpses of eternity from scripture but in the end we don’t know that much more than Edwin’s adviser. We only know in whom we have placed our trust, and that He will be with us in whatever awaits that vast world beyond.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Where is Paradise?

A man is fast asleep when he is gently awoken by the soft heavenly glow of the Angel Gabriel. After he is convinced that he is in fact truly awake and not dreaming, Gabriel speaks to the man: “I have come to you from the Lord of Hosts, what would you ask of Him? Inquire anything and you shall know!” The man gave this a moments though and then said, “All my life I’ve wanted to know the location of Paradise that I may go there someday.” The Angel takes the man by the hand and they fly out the window, zig zagging around stars until finally landing outside in a modest looking garden. “Is this paradise?”, the man asks. Gabriel takes the man by the hand and leads him to a small house and takes him inside. There inside are a few old men drinking coffee and studying the scriptures. “This”, says Gabriel, “is Paradise!” The man looks understandably confused. Gabriel smiles. “I know why you are puzzled… see, you are under the impression the saints are in Paradise while all this time Paradise has been in the Saints.”

This old Jewish legend teaches something very profound. While we do believe in the hope of Resurrection as Christians, we must not lose sight of the fact that eternal life begins in the here and now. Whenever we gather with one another to search scripture and pray, we are creating a little piece of paradise in our hearts where God can begin to dwell. I far better teacher than I once said “wherever two or more are gathered in my name, I am with them.” God calls us into loving community where the most ordinary of tasks, through his grace, is transformed into heavenly light.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…