God’s offer of eternal life changes everything for those who believe, even in this life. Eternal life is not just something that gets tacked on at the end. It is, as Jesus said, the way to have an abundant life right now (John 10). This eternal promise gives us the hope and the perspective to face anything in this life, knowing that this world is not our final home, but that we are on our way to a place more permanent, one not filled with tragedy and tears and pain and death (Revelation 21). This is the hope we have in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior.
The difference this new perspective makes now, in this life, is illustrated by the stories of two little girls.
Robert Coles, Harvard psychologist, author, and Christian, tells the story of a little girl he met in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He says of that poverty stricken village, “Death haunted every shack; miscarriages, babies dying of a variety of untreated diseases, children chronically ill, and children often telling of the loss of this or that friend, and of parents who were dead or very sick. Death was ever present.”
The ten year old girl Coles was writing about said to him casually, “To die is what can happen to you any day; that much we know here.” Yes, Coles thought, we all know that here in the United States, too; but not so well as they know it there. Few ten year olds here are as experienced in facing death as are all ten year olds there. So he was struck by how, with the resigned shrug of the shoulders, the little girl had said, “You can die any day.” Such matter-of-fact acceptance of death is commonly seen here in nursing homes, but not so much on playgrounds.
Then the girl told her story:
My father died when I was just a baby; less than a year old, I think. My mother will soon join him. She wanted to stay with us children, but now most of all she wants to die and go to Jesus. She is in so much pain all the time. At night we hear her cry. We should be sleeping, but we hear her and we worry about her. She doesn’t want us to worry about her, so she tries to let out her tears only in the dark. During the day, she tries to smile, talk to us, and teach us everything she can. I have younger brothers and sisters from my stepfather, and I had to learn to cook for them. Mother is teaching me and I am getting better at cooking, and I am also getting better with my little sisters and brothers. Actually, I think I am getting better all the way around. I don’t want to brag, but this is just what is happening. Mother says I have to learn much because soon she won’t be here. As for my stepfather, well, he gives us some money, but he comes around only sometimes, and then he is gone again.
Coles then asked the little girl if she could tell him the most important thing that she learned from her mother. She said:
Oh yes, I will tell you what our mamma tells us all the time. She says that in this life we are just visiting here. That is what life is, just a visit; and then we have to leave. So, she says, be glad that you are here, but don’t forget, we are only here to visit, and be prepared every day to say ‘good-bye.’ She said she is doing that now to us, saying ‘good-bye;’ and even though the pain is terrible and she wants to die, she also is grateful for each day to teach us, so the memory of what she says can grow stronger in us. She tells us she is proud of us, and when she sees how much we love her, then she knows why she was born. She was born so that we could be born.
A few days after that visit, the little girl’s mother died at the age of 30 with her children all around her. To the end she was whispering her advice, her guidance, and her encouragement to the children to be faithful to God and to be good. After her mother died, the little girl looked up at that famous statue of Jesus with his arms outstretched high up on a hilltop over Rio de Janeiro, and she said, “She is on her way to you now, Jesus, so be ready for her.” It was with such faith and courage that that ten year old girl faced the death of her mother and the awesome responsibilities now ahead of her. Her mother had passed on to her a firm faith in that larger perspective of the eternal life that is to be found in Jesus. We are only visitors here, she would say. We are on our way to that home Jesus himself is preparing for us.
The other little girl, also about ten years old, is the daughter of teacher and author Frank McCourt. In his book Teacherman, McCourt described the death of his mother. At the funeral, Frank McCourt’s daughter had a question. “Where’s Grandma now,” she asked her dad. Having long ago abandoned the Christian faith of his childhood, Frank McCourt was speechless. He wrote in his book, “I had no words for her for a time like this.” He had no words, no hope, nothing he believed in enough to offer to his daughter.
What a contrast between the two parents. A poor, probably illiterate, Brazilian mother, armed only with faith, leaves her ten-year old daughter with the confident faith and strength to face the death of her second parent and the task of taking over the care of the family. Frank McCourt, brilliant Pulitzer Prize winning author and master of words, but of no faith, has not even one word of hope or comfort for his daughter on the death of her elderly grandmother.
John 14:18-19 — (Jesus said), “I will not leave you as orphans. I will come to you. Before long the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me; and because I live, you will live also.”
John 10:10b — (Jesus said), “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
Revelation 21:3-5 — I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell 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.”
O Lord our God, from whom neither life nor death can separate those who trust in thy love, and whose love holds in its embrace thy children in this world and the next; so unite us to thyself that in fellowship with thee we may always be united to our loved ones whether here or there; and give us courage, constancy, and hope; through him who died and was buried and rose again for us, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
–William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury (1881-1944)