On Young Widows, Hot Tea, and Heaven
Very recently in a sermon, I reminded our congregation that the true nature of our souls is most often revealed not in the fun and easy times, but in the crucible of suffering and sorrow. Like a dry tea bag, we really don’t know what’s “in there” until it is steeped in hot water. In the hot water, and only in the hot water, something bitter or something sweet to the taste will come out. Every now and again (quite often, actually), as a pastor I get to have a front-row seat to the “sweet tea” effect when a person from our church is marred by affliction, and what comes out is something that’s always been in there — an honest and tearful and real — as well as a deep, abiding, and inspiring faith.
These days, as I do the necessary work of getting the word out about my newest writing project called Irresistible Faith, I can’t help but think of the young widow from our Christ Presbyterian congregation named Mattie Selecman, who lost her beloved new husband, Ben, in a tragic boating accident this past year. Mattie, as you will see from the artful and heartfelt telling of some of her story below (she is a formidable writer in her own right), has been tested and tried and proven as one of those “tea bags” who, when immersed in the hot water of suffering in this world filled with many dangers, toils, and snares, emerges with a soul that is sweet to the taste of every other soul. She is both painfully honest about the pain of loss and bereavement, and hopeful about the promises of Jesus, the resurrected one who will return and make all things new. I trust you will be deeply moved and touched by the telling of some of Mattie’s story below.
And Mattie, if you are reading this, THANK YOU for allowing me to share your life-giving words here. When a young woman puts all experience, both joy and sorrow, inside the Story of God as you have here, friend, it brings hope to us all. You are courageous, you are kind, and you are, as your beloved Ben, a loved and esteemed and forever kept child of God.
“Are you living your life in light of eternity?”
A theologically loaded and bewildering question to most of us, even those who consider ourselves active and generally matured in our faith. A year ago, I might have had a verse to quote or a quippy counter question to pose; a Colossians 3 reference or a defense that the moment of salvation in and of itself sets your life in the frame of eternity. Not out of self-righteousness or antagonism for the question, but sheerly out of confusion. How can any of us truly digest, much less enact, the lifestyle that question begs of us?
In all my years as a Christ follower, I never doubted heaven or hell. By the grace of God, I have been able to accept at sovereign face-value the promise of eternal life through faith, which can prove a works-sized stumbling block for so many. But even in rich belief, we can struggle to translate understanding into action. We’re gifted the most precious treasure chest without the map by which to find it. We know we’re headed for eternity, but can’t compute the now from a waiting game into a life of active participation.
It took losing Ben for me to truly understand what living for eternity means. I think if humanity took a break from blaming God for suffering, we’d find living proof that suffering is, in fact, His most radical tool for blessing. To truly gain an eternal perspective, to walk with feet in a broken world yet look with eyes toward what precedes us in the full presence of Christ, I’m afraid we must first lose someone worth looking for.
Because the convicting truth is, we expect to see Jesus in heaven. We know He’s there awaiting us with open, healing arms. So we take for granted, or at least I did, that eternity isn’t behind remote gates in the sky with a stockpile of the treasures we can’t yet access from this earth. Until we lose one we cherish dearly, we accept heaven as mystically farther beyond the veil than I’ve since found it to be. We don’t mind that heaven and Jesus are far away, because we have what we think we need here. But once we lose them, we cast every desperate bet we have on heaven being closer to us than we formerly dismissed it to be.
When I lost Ben, my days played on like a slow sequence of black and white frames. In reality all different, but most feeling like frozen shutters of the same picture. For a while nothing of this world satisfied. Food tasted bland, conversations often muted, and day-to-day tasks like shackles of exhausting, fruitless labor. All you long for in those early weeks of loss are intimacy, freedom, and trust. All things stripped from us when we lose the one we loved most. All things this world can’t ultimately provide. All things eternal.
I found them first in the Word. They were especially healing since my words had been taken totally captive by sorrow. Prayers even felt arrested in my aching chest, unable to manifest into anything audible or meaningful. God’s Word truly did become my bread of life. The only thing that comforted. The only thing I craved. The only thing that slowly leeched life back into the monotones of my days. So I kept my eyes on the Word.
Yet even after the tides of life started surging back in, after I started working again and friends dared enter normal conversations not revolving around Ben; even then, I thought living in light of eternity depended on my efforts to stay in the scripture. It brightened by mornings, tempered my pains, and gave me Jesus colored glasses which, on most mornings, I donned with gratitude. It sustained me through the holidays and our first anniversary. It cloaked me with supernatural, completely illogical peace that could come from no other but the Holy Spirit.
But even still, it was a facade. A well-intended, scripturally ornamented facade. It was external. My perspective had brightened from hope only Jesus can offer, but my heart still lay a pile of rubble, desolate at the loss of a future with the man the Lord had given me not a year before. I needed the reality, the proximity, and the heartbeat of heaven to penetrate my soul. I needed palpable miracles, regular God nods, to resound in my dreams, my work, and my relationships. I needed to feel Ben’s spirit encouraging me and walking beside me as I’d expected him too until old age.
So I studied heaven. Everything I could find on it I poured over, trying to piece together an eternal puzzle that scripture gives anything but obvious corner pieces on which to build. While many elements of the afterlife are not biblically definitive, I found that others do speak unobstructed truth.
We are one body in Christ — not one in heaven and one on earth.
The present heaven and the new earth are greater versions of the current earth we now know, implying physical continuity as well as relational and personal continuity after death (though no interpersonal marriage, aside from our marriage to Christ, the bridegroom). If God’s heaven and new earth are a divinely greater versions of the earth we know now, so too will we share with our family and friends a greater version of the love we shared together on earth.
These doctrines and many more finally broke down my compartmentalized understanding of heaven and earth. In ways that only the Spirit can, I felt overcome with the assurance that even if our marriage was, Ben and I weren’t over. We were hardly even separated! We were still living out the sacramental vow for our love to reflect the purpose, perseverance, and unconditional love of Christ for His church. Though now in his heavenly home, Ben is still fighting for, praying for, and petitioning for me as I walk through this earthly valley and approach the foothills of the glory of God. And I can still praise God for the earthly husband He granted me, and whom I continue to cherish, without reproaching the Lord for taking him away.
I finally felt (felt because knew is not the right term; knew would imply understanding while my revelation was more a divinely appointed feeling embraced in faith) that living in light of eternity doesn’t mean reverently, stagnantly waiting for it. No, living in light of eternity means being so desperate for Jesus and so joyful for loved ones who already have unhindered access to Him that you can no longer separate this life from theirs. Ben isn’t gone or lost while I’m left awaiting a far-off day we’ll finally converse again above the clouds. He’s simply already boarded the plane, and I’m stuck in security. But he and Jesus, they’re fighting for me. They’re saving my seat, ordering me a drink, and demanding the pilot hold on — that someone very special is coming. And that she has a place right beside both of them.
Living in light of eternity doesn’t mean denying realities of life. It doesn’t mean I feel Ben’s embrace or hear him speak to me. It means I know that the all-merciful Savior is delighted to continue to share Ben’s spirit with me, even while I’m still stuck in security. It means our prayers to have a Christ centered marriage didn’t fully die with Ben’s death. It means the more I surrender and stop trying to clutch what Ben and I had, the greater Jesus fills my hands and my heart with Himself, with reminders of the One I can never lose.
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