In 1927 the wife of Scottish preacher Arthur Gossip died suddenly. When he returned to the pulpit he preached a sermon titled “When Life Tumbles In, What Then?” In that sermon Gossip compared life to watching a plane pass through the sky during wartime. There you are, lying on your back watching a plane fly gracefully across a brilliant sunlit blue sky when all of a sudden it is blown apart by gunfire and falls to earth a tumbling, tangled mess of metal. Only on this occasion the gunfire was the tragically unexpected death of his beloved wife.
Gossip went on to explain that he didn’t understand this life, but what he did know was that during this darkest period of his life he needed his faith more than ever. “You people in the sunshine may believe the faith, but we in the shadow must believe it. We have nothing else.” Without his faith there was no hope.
Source: Reported in Hans, God on the Witness Stand (Baker 1987). Hans sourced the sermon from Arthur Gossip, The Hero in Thy Soul (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1930)
In 1985 Cher starred in a movie called Mask. She played the biker mother of Rocky, a teenager with a severe facial deformity. Possessed of a gentle nature, Rocky volunteers to help out at a camp for blind kids. If they can’t see his face they’ll judge him on who he is, not what he looks like.
During the camp he develops a romance with one of the blind teenage girls. Blind since birth, she doesn’t know what Rocky means when he talks about colours or clouds. Rocky is determined to communicate these things to her, and has a brilliant idea on how to do it. He leads his girlfriend into the kitchen and over to the refrigerator. He takes out a rock he has placed in there earlier and places it in her hands. “That’s blue” says Rocky. He then takes her to the oven and pulls out a rock which has been heated. Placing it in her hands she comments on how hot it is. “That’s red” says Rocky. He then pulls out a bunch of cotton wool balls and places them in her hands. “That’s what clouds are like”. The two of them grow excited as this young blind girl feels that for the first time she understands what colour and clouds are.
Of course she never sees colours and clouds as they really are. Rather, by comparing them to something she already knows she is able to gain a sense of what they’re like.
When it comes to describing realities beyond our direct observation the bible adopts a strategy similar to Rocky’s. How could we possibly understand exactly what heaven and eternity in it will be like if we’ve never experienced that kind of life yet. So the bible draws pictures in terms of what we already know as familiar: a brilliant city, a beautiful garden. In painting such pictures we may not get a literal picture but like Rocky’s blind girlfriend, we get a sense, and the sense of it is all we need.
There was a woman who had been diagnosed with a terminal illness and had been given three months to live. So as as she was getting her things “in order,” she contacted her pastor and had him come to her house to discuss certain aspects of her final wishes. She told him which songs she wanted sung at the service, what scriptures she would like read, and what outfit she wanted to be buried in. The woman also requested to be buried with her favourite Bible. Everything was in order and the pastor was preparing to leave when the woman suddenly remembered something very important to her.
“There’s one more thing,” she excitedly.
“What’s that?” came the pastor’s reply.
“This is very important,” the woman continued. “I want to be buried with a fork in my right hand.”
The pastor stood looking at the woman, not knowing quite what to say. “That surprises you, doesn’t it?” the woman asked.
“Well, to be honest, I’m puzzled by the request,” said the pastor.
The woman explained. “In all my years of attending church socials and potluck dinners I always remember that when the dishes were cleared, someone would inevitably lean over and say, ‘Keep your fork.’ It was my favorite part because I knew that something better was coming… like velvety chocolate cake or deep-dish apple pie. Something wonderful and of substance! So I just want people to see me there in that casket with a fork in my hand and I want them to wonder, ‘What’s with the fork?’ Then I want you to tell them: ‘Keep your fork… the best is yet to come.’
The pastor’s eyes welled up with tears of joy as he hugged the woman goodbye. He knew this would be one of the last times he would see her before her death. But he also knew that the woman had a better grasp of heaven that he did. She knew that something better was coming.
At the funeral people were walking by the woman’s casket and they saw the pretty dress she was wearing and her favourite Bible and the fork placed in her right hand. Over and over, the pastor heard the question, “What’s with the fork?” And over and over he smiled.
During his message, the pastor told the people of the conversation he had with the woman shortly before she died. He also told them about the fork and what it symbolized to her. The pastor told the people how he could not stop thinking about the fork and told them that they probably would not be able to stop thinking about it either. He was right. So the next time you reach down for your fork, let it remind you oh so gently, that the best is yet to come.
A man tells the story about a special friend he made while just a boy. When quite young, Paul’s father had one of the first telephones in their neighbourhood. Paul was too little to reach the telephone, but used to listen with fascination when his mother talked to it.
Then Paul discovered that somewhere inside the wonderful device lived an amazing person – her name was “Information, Please” and there was nothing she did not know.
“Information, Please” could supply anybody’s number and the correct time. Paul’s first personal experience with this genie-in the-bottle came one day while his mother was visiting a neighbour. Amusing himself at the tool bench in the basement, Paul hacked his finger with a hammer. The pain was terrible, but there didn’t seem to be any reason in crying because there was no one home to give sympathy. He walked around the house sucking his throbbing finger, finally arriving at the stairway.
Quickly, Paul ran for the foot stool in the parlour and dragged it to the landing. Climbing up, he unhooked the receiver in the parlour and held it to his ear. “Information, Please,” he said into the mouthpiece just above his head.
A click or two and a small clear voice spoke into Paul’s ear.
“I hurt my finger,” Paul wailed into the phone.
“Isn’t your mother home?” came the question.
“Nobody’s home but me” Paul blubbered.
“Are you bleeding?” the voice asked.
“No,” he replied. “I hit my finger with the hammer and it hurts.”
“Can you open your icebox?” she asked. He said he could. “Then chip off a little piece of ice and hold it to your finger,” said the voice.
After that, Paul called “Information, Please” for everything. He asked her for help with his geography and she told me where Philadelphia was. She helped him with his maths. She told Paul that his pet chipmunk, which he had caught in the park just the day before, would eat fruit and nuts. Then, there was the time Petey, the pet canary died. Paul called and told her the sad story.
She listened, then said the usual things grown-ups say to soothe a child, but Paul was inconsolable. He asked her, “Why is it that birds should sing so beautifully and bring joy to all families, only to end up as a heap of feathers on the bottom of a cage?”
She must have sensed his deep concern, for she said quietly, “Paul, always remember that there are other worlds to sing in.” Somehow he felt better. .
When Paul was nine years old, his family moved across the country to Boston. Paul missed his friend very much. “Information, Please” belonged in that old wooden box back home, and he somehow never thought of trying the tall, shiny new phone that sat on the table in the hall.
As he grew into my teens, the memories of those childhood conversations never really left him. Often, in moments of doubt and perplexity Paul would recall the serene sense of security he had then. He appreciated now how patient, understanding, and kind she was to have spent her time on a little boy.
A few years later, on his way west to college, Paul’s plane put down in Seattle. He had about half an hour or so between planes. He spent 15 minutes on the phone with my sister, who lived there now. Then without thinking what he was doing, Paul dialled his hometown operator and said, “Information, Please.”
Miraculously, he heard the small, clear voice he knew so well, “Information.”
He hadn’t planned this but he heard myself saying, “Could you please tell me how to spell fix?”
There was a long pause. Then came the soft spoken answer, “I guess your finger must have healed by now.” Paul laughed. “So it’s really still you,” he said. “I wonder if you have any idea how much you meant to me during that time.”
“I wonder,” she said, “if you know how much your calls meant to me. I never had any children, and I used to look forward to your calls.” Paul told her how often he had thought of her over the years and asked if he could call her again when he came back to visit his sister.
“Please do,” she said. “Just ask for Sally.”
Three months later Paul was back in Seattle. A different voice answered, “Information.” He asked for Sally. “Are you a friend?” She asked.
“Yes, a very old friend,” Paul answered.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this,” she said. “Sally has been working part-time the last few years because she was sick. She died five weeks ago.”
Before he could hang up she said, “Wait a minute. Is this Paul?”
“Yes,” Paul replied.
“Well, Sally left a message for you. She wrote it down in case you called. Let me read it to you.” The note said, “Tell him I still say there are other worlds to sing in. He’ll know what I mean.”
Application: Listening – Information Please gave Paul one of the most precious yet simple gifts a person can give, the gift of listening.
Application: Hope, Death, Heaven. “There are other world’s to sing in”. Beyond death lies the hope of a new life.
Application: Community, Friendship. This story reminds us that we need each other. Information Please and Paul both had their lives enriched in powerful yet simple ways by the gift of their friendship with one another.
Application: Children. We adults often make the mistake of dismissing the concerns of small children. Yet coping with the death of a budgie or telling someone that you’ve hurt your finger are the things that are important to a small child. Sally reminds us of the importance of being attentive to the needs of children, not expecting them to function as mini adults but nurturing their journey as children.
A man spoke with the Lord about Heaven and Hell. “I will show you Hell,” said the Lord. And they went into a room which had a large pot of stew in the middle. The smell was delicious and around the pot sat people who were famished and desperate. All were holding spoons with very long handles which reached to the pot, but because the handles of the spoons were longer than their arms, it was impossible to get the stew into their mouths. Their suffering was terrible.
“Now I will show you Heaven,” said the Lord, and they went into an identical room. There was a similar pot of stew and the people had the same identical spoons, but they were well nourished, talking and happy.
At first the man did not understand.
“It is simple,” said the Lord. “You see, they have learned to feed each other.”
The movie Amistad tells the story of a group of African slaves who seize control of their slave-ship and demand to be returned to their homeland. The captain instead takes them to an American seaport where they are imprisoned.
As they await the judge’s verdict one of the men, Yamba, sits in a corner of the prison cell thumbing through the pages of a bible.
Cinque, the leader of the group, looks over and says, “You don’t have to pretend to be interested in that. Nobody’s watching but me.”
After a brief moment Yamba looks up. “I’m not pretending. I’m beginning to understand it” he says. He cannot read the writing – English is foreign to him – but he can make sense of the pictures. When Cinque comes over to see for himself Yamba explains the story in their native language. “Their people have suffered more than ours” he says. Showing Cinque a picture of Jews being attacked by lions, he continues, “Their lives were full of suffering.”
Then Yamba flips the page and points to a picture of the baby Jesus, crowned with a halo of light, “Then he was born and everything changed.”
Cinque asks, “Who is he?”
Yamba replies that he doesn’t know, but that the child must be special. He moves through the pictures of Jesus. He points to a picture of Jesus riding on a donkey, praised by onlookers. A golden orb forms a halo around Jesus. “Everywhere he goes” says Yamba, “he is followed by the sun.”
Picture after picture the same theme emerges. Light surrounds Jesus as he heals people with his hands, as he protects an outcast woman, as he embraces children.
But this is not the end of the story. “Something happened” says Yamba. “He was captured, accused of some crime.”
Cinque shakes his head back and forth and insists, “He must have done something.”
Yamba says, “Why? What did we do?… Do you want to see how they killed him?”
Yamba is now getting very emotional. Cinque reminds him, “This is just a story, Yamba.”
Yamba shakes his head in protest. This man’s death was real. “But look” he says. “That’s not the end of it. His people took his body down from…” Yamba pauses and draws a cross in the air.
“They took him into a cave. They wrapped him in cloth, like we do. They thought he was dead, but he appeared before his people again…and he spoke to them. Then, finally, he rose into the sky.”
“This is where the soul goes when you die here. This is where we’re going when they kill us.” Stroking a picture that depicts heaven, Yamba concludes, “It doesn’t look so bad.”