Note to My Readers: from mid-June to mid-August (6/18 - 8/20), I will be taking a summer break from posting new articles for my Thursday and Friday slots. This will only affect my Thursday series on the global growth of Christianity, and my Friday series, the "Theological Bestiary" of birds, both of which will resume in late August. During the summer, I'll be dusting off some of my best essays from the first few years of this blog (a decade ago), as well as my verse play "Thus Ends the World," and re-posting them in the Thursday and Friday slots. All other weekdays will continue to feature new material throughout the summer.

Friday, March 16, 2007

The Communion of the Saints

A few weeks ago, Rachel bought me a pair of slippers. They're a bit odd, so they suit me well. Apparently she saw them lying in an 'on-sale' bin--two rather ridiculous slippers fashioned as mallards--and, knowing my love for all things avian, she bought them. I've never before owned a pair of slippers, nor seen the need to, but these plucky birds quickly won my affection. They had enough personality that I decided to give them names, and I quickly settled on Martin and Boniface. There's no real connection between duck-slippers and these two illustrious missionary-saints from the Dark Ages, but given the chance to bestow a name on something, I couldn't resist giving a sign of my love and gratitude to these heroes of the past. (Further, Rachel probably won't let me name our children after medieval saints, though 'Boniface Burden' does have a ring to it).
Having grown up in a Baptist church, I didn't hear much about the saints, save those few who have been informally canonized by Protestants, like George Mueller, and those who are fast on their way to beatification, like Billy Graham. But my parents did introduce me early, through books they made available to me, to the great figures of the Protestant missionary movement--as a boy I could have told you about William Carey and David Livingstone, Gladys Aylward and Jim Elliot. And, of course, I had the whole community of biblical saints to fill the empty spaces in my imagination.
But in the past few years I've had the delight of growing to know more and more of the blessed communion of the saints--not only those who walk among us, but many who have walked before. Late in high school I was introduced to Antony (or Anthony), the eccentric Desert Father, and to Patrick, missionary to Ireland. As I studied at Houghton College, I encountered Benedict, father of western monasticism, and Francis, the joyful troubadour for God in medieval Italy. And since then I've encountered a host of others in my studies of church history. It was the missionaries who always seized my interest the most--Martin and Boniface are among that company, but the list doesn't end there. I don't have room enough here to tell again the tales of Ulfilas, Frumentius, Paulinus, Cyril and Methodius, Anskar, Francis Xavier, Hudson Taylor, and all the rest. But to use an image taken from Dante (by way of C. S. Lewis), I can attest that these men have affected me like mountains. For anyone who has seen the Rockies, Himalayas, or Alps, towering majesties of stone and snow, this comment will make sense. There are moments when I can do nothing but lift up my eyes up to these heights and breathe a wordless gasp of wonder that such grandeur exists. In the same way, there is very real power and inspiration that comes from knowing and telling the stories of men and women of great zeal and holiness. Knowing that such men are among the cloud of witnesses that watch us run, I am encouraged to run this race well.
Below I've attached a poem I just wrote. It's an imaginative description of my entrance into heaven, or the new earth, or the intermediate state, or whatever you would like to call it. The saints figure a prominent role there, mostly because I'm excited about meeting them someday, but in a way, those are the least of the meetings I look forward to. For those who would think it presumptuous to assume, as I do in this poem, that the great saints of the past will be there to personally welcome me in, let me explain. The image I have is not that I've run this race so well that they would make special efforts to see me in particular. Certainly not. Rather, I have this beautiful sense that, if heaven is so ordered, one of the most joyful tasks that the saints of God possess is to be at the door, ushering people in. There is a wonderful delight in sharing a secret. I can remember as a boy, tromping through the brush or the woods around our home, and finding a special place or a spot that took my breath away. It would be one of my greatest joys to introduce someone I loved--my brother or my sister--to that place, so that they could share my wonder. That's what I picture the saints doing here--they're so captivated with the joy of this place that one of their greatest delights is in welcoming others to share that joy.
I've often wanted to write a poem about what I imagine heaven will be like, but words have always failed to even approach the power and the wonder of what my imagination generates, and I'm sure that my imagination falls far short of the reality. I'm not very satisfied with this poem in that sense--though I tried, it doesn't even come close to conveying the wonder and the joy of the anticipation that, even now, I can feel singing in my heart. And unfortunately, this blog doesn't allow me to use spacings and margins as well as I would like, for they're an important part of this poem's layout. But, nonetheless, here it is, and I hope it blesses you. I've always felt that a proper understanding of heaven, one of the great focus-points of Scripture, can help us live our lives more effectively here and now. It's called "Into Forever."

I open my eyes…

And cannot close them again.

Beauty overtakes me

In wild, restless strides—

Waves of unspoken wonder

As I tread this wooded path.

I walk awake within a dream,

And the world I knew

Has vanished now—

The dancing shadow of this verdant wood.

Golden sunlight fills the path ahead,

And I pause in the shadow

Between what was and what will be.

Then,

With the breathless pounding of my heart,

I step forward…

Into forever.

Light surrounds me now,

Becoming my shield,

My raiment,

My very breath.

I hear laughter ahead,

And it calls to my heart

With a power that weakens my knees

And makes me feel like I could fly.

I gaze through to the other side,

Beyond the silent trees,

And there I see them waiting.

Some are gathered around a campfire,

Watching its crackling blaze

With smiles on their faces.

Others look expectantly toward the path

Where in moments,

I will appear before their gaze.

Grandpa’s there—

I can see him looking for me,

Watching every shadow

With the hope that I emerge.

And in his face I see a new radiance,

Which before could only be seen

In the twinkle of his eye,

Or on the edge of a joyful laugh.

And gathered about him are my heroes,

The friends I had known only from afar,

And yet known well enough

That I could hear their voices

Across the chasm of the years.

I pause, and tremble at the sight.

These men are like mountains,

And their majesty overwhelms me.

Francis is there,

With an arm slung over my Grandpa’s shoulders.

He’s a small man,

But his smile is tremendous.

And there’s Boniface and Columbanus,

Laughing together at some small joke,

And beside them a quiet Augustine studies the flames

As he pretends to listen

To Chesterton’s delighted banter.

Livingstone is standing beside the fire,

Nodding thoughtfully as he shares a word

With Benedict and old Father Antony.

Here they have gathered together

To share one of their greatest loves—

Welcoming their newborn friends

Into a world of awesome joy.

I can’t stop now;

I am drawn forward by a surge of holy energy,

And my feet race down the quiet path.

Out from the wood I burst,

And there I pause again,

Watching as the blessed saints now turn to me in full,

Like the dawning of the sun

Smiling peace on a darkened world.

They rush forward and break against me

Like a warm ocean wave.

I am surrounded by their laughter,

And they embrace me

And merrily slap my back.

Tears spill down,

Bright and warm against my cheeks.

But it doesn’t matter,

For they are crying too.

And in their presence,

Enfolded in their pleasure,

I find the love and peace

Of which all the earthly joys of home and family

Were merely shadows in the night.

“Welcome home,” says Columbanus,

And a laugh of pure delight

Spills out from deep within my soul.

Then behind this band of saints and heroes,

I see a greater multitude,

Watching me with smiles of thunderous joy.

These are the ones I never knew,

But those who all knew me,

Who watched and hoped and prayed

Throughout my earthly days.

This, my company of witnesses—

Gentle farmers and men of valor,

Monks and scribes and warriors.

Some are of my blood and line,

Fathers and mothers that time forgot,

And some are merely friends

Whom providence has drawn to me.

Amid this warm and wild sea of grace I walk,

Laughing and crying and embracing them all.

At the end I stand upon the shore,

And now before me are two more men,

Men I know well,

But who steal the breath from me.

They stand with their feet in the waves,

Each in simple robes,

As they talk about the weather

And how it will affect their fishing.

Peter and John, the Master’s dearest friends,

Turn to me and smile.

“Ah, you’re here,” says John,

“But I expect you’d rather see Him first.

We shall have plenty of time to get to know each other,

You and I.”

Peter laughs and takes off his outer cloak,

Then drapes it around my shoulders.

And the Servant of the servants of God

Draws me into his embrace,

And I begin to weep again.

“No tears for me, my friend,” he says,

Then points up toward the mountain.

“He knew where you would want to meet Him,

And there He waits for you.”

I leave the two friends on the shore,

And up I climb the rocky trail.

It’s a path I know well,

For I’ve been there once before,

In a moment of wonder and delight.

And there, on the crest,

I see Him.

He’s turned away,

His face hidden by a hood of white,

But I know the Lover of my soul.

And as I draw near,

He looks over his shoulder

And He smiles at me.

And once again,

As in that day so long ago,

My spirit starts to fly.

Together we soar against the azure sky,

Sounding our crystal laughter

Over verdant valleys below.

And in His presence I am drawn

Up from the mountain,

Up through the sky

And beyond the singing stars,

To the place beyond all places,

Where reigns the Everlasting King.

There the Christ ascends the rainbow throne,

And there he takes his seat.

And the multitude of heaven,

The angels and the saints

And the holy creatures and the elders

Fall down on their faces

As the Wonder of our hearts

Shows us His glory and delight.

The Light that birthed the sun now shines,

The Fountainhead of endless joy,

And in His light,

And in His joy,

We are made complete.

I am spent from tears and wonder,

But I am not alone.

I am caught up in the kingdom,

In the family—

All of us and naught of I—

And we have finally found our home.

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