No time is easy to lose a loved one, particularly when that one has many earthly responsibilities. In the case of my Mother, while her passing brings pain to those of us who remain, she has finished her race – and grandly. Our farewell to her is a celebration of a life well lived.
My Mom might have appeared quiet, reticent even. That appearance belied a profound inner stability that had endured, no, flourished through the course of wars and all sorts of human drama that did little to rock her exterior, whatever she might have felt on the inside.
In recent years, her earthly capacities diminished severely until at last there was nothing left to hold her to our present world. Even so in the end, she seemed reluctant to let go, as if she still had more to give.
Give is all she ever did. Not because she had to, as, say, in order to achieve something or merely because of what another person needed or demanded of her. No, she gave out of a surprisingly vast inner well of abundance that came from her first true love, Jesus.
My mother was a minister of the gospel, a pastor. I believe she was also a theologian, less in her formal training for she didn’t go beyond a bachelor’s degree, but more in the essential sense of the word, as one who thinks about God and diligently studies the nature of God. God was no abstract to her, nor was God in any way remote. Through the presence of the Holy Spirit and the person of Jesus Christ, God was as real to her as any reality could possibly be.
How well I remember the day we visited remote Dali in Southwest China, a place she had called home during World War II. A handful of American and British missionary kids had been sent up to Dali in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains to free their parents during the crisis at hand and to get out of harm’s way from the aerial invasion by Japan.
Our visit in the late ‘90s revealed little of what had been in the early 40s and we wondered if our search would produce anything memorable. Then we ran into an elderly Christian who knew exactly where the school had been. The wall around the school yard still stood and Mom recognized what remained of the well. Then she saw it, her dorm room, now converted into the back of a hotel. But there were the very stairs and door to her room.
She had no interest in seeing inside. It would have been changed beyond recognition. But, oh, how she remembered what had transpired in that room. The day she received the letter from her parents, of how their house in Kunming had been bombed, how her loved ones had been preserved, how her own parents seemed so far away at that moment even though she was in the warm care of missionary guardians.
It was that same day that she knew her life would be safe solely in the care of Jesus. And she committed herself to him unequivocally. From then on, her faith was her anchor, whatever life would throw at her. And throw it did, her faith never wavering.
My mother was a TCK – a third-culture kid, one who grows up in a country other than her own and thus becomes a mix of both, or other even. TCKs never fully fit in, ever transcending the world around them. Born and raised in Kunming, China, her teacher and several of her parents’ coworkers were British. And she was American.
My daughter, who was born in Taiwan and drew up in China, identified with this TCK-ness in her grandmother. “Grandma gets me”, she said as a child, “like no one else.”
Just as her TCK world allowed her to transcend any one culture, so too did her understanding of eternity allow for its own unique transcendence. She was in this world, but born of another, meaning that she was a child of a heavenly King.
I saw this dual transcendence in her often. In how she related to people around her, how she identified with where God had placed her, how she never lost sight of life beyond even as she lived life in the now to its fullest.
The best way to describe this transcendence is that she had one spiritual foot firmly planted on earth and the other firmly planted in heaven. Heaven was as real for her as anyone I’ve ever met. Not the streets of gold stuff. Not even heaven as a reunion station, though meeting loved ones was of course a wonderful hope.
No, heaven for my mother was much more, much deeper. It was about being with her first love, Jesus. And that expectation colored every aspect of her life.
How can I describe it to you? Our attempting to grasp heaven is as if we were two-dimensional creatures, like cartoon characters, attempting to understand the third dimension of depth. Well, heaven for us three-dimensional creatures is like a fourth, fifth or even sixth dimension. There are no earthly comparisons.
Heaven was no mere escape from earth for Mom. It was the thing that propelled her through lots of nasty. She survived, thrived even, in the nasty because she had such a firm grasp on what was to come beyond the nasty. She didn’t need to escape the Now because heaven was very real for her here on earth.
I saw this most clearly during what we Pentecostals refer to as the altar call. This was no momentary gathering at the front of the church at the end of a service. No, altar calls were a place of hanging out (tarrying, we used to call it) in the presence of God, a presence as real as anything one can experience in life. Her place in those altar services was at the organ, playing and singing, worshiping with tears running down her face, leading in worship by being lost in worship herself.
Such were her portals between this life and the life to come.
Which may be why she had a thing for beauty. Not the commercialized glamour this world has to offer. No, beauty for her was whatever had been touched by the hand of God.
She received with much grace whatever gifts others gave her, even if it wasn’t her type of thing. Beauty was in the hand of the giver and it was precious to her for what it had meant to the other.
She was taken in by beauty every where. The face of a child, the shape of a tree, the splendor of a starry night. And the sounds of a majestic choir or a bubbling brook.
She once told me she had prayed for me before I was born, asking God for a cute baby. And she was delighted with what God had sent her. I asked her why she stopped with how I looked as a baby. She responded something about babies not being tempted with being vain. Which must be why I am so humble.
The beauty she saw in this world – and she saw it everywhere – was evidence of God’s love for us, of God’s presence. As if heaven were leaking into the here and now through that portal which was ever near to her.
Her bucket list as she grew older was a simple one, filled with seeing people transformed by the grace of God or sitting by a window looking out at birds fluttering in a tree.
A dozen years ago we were camping by Shadow Mountain Lake in Colorado. The stars were so thick, even she could not make out the constellations. She’d seen the Milky Way countless times before, without city lights up in the China highlands, out on a ship in the vast Pacific, or standing in her own back yard. The view never grew old for her. It was for her a front seat on the wonders of her Creator.
Have you ever seen my mother’s smile? You will never forget it if you have. I’ve no doubt it was one of the last things to go. She smiled with a radiance that belied any pain or struggle lurking behind. As life robbed her of the rest of her strength, she could still produce that smile. Not forced, but natural as if it was her default expression. For it was.
I have this theory about the frailty of old age, that, apart from the distorting ravages of dementia, old age diminishes us to our barest of essentials. For my mother that was her smile that reminded us she was still with us and God was still shining through her.
Her Chinese name meant bright pearl, a thing of radiance. I have no idea if she was a cute baby. I do know that she was a radiant woman, revealing the grace and love of God as only she could do.
Long ago, she patiently explained to me the difference between joy and happiness. Happiness is a fleeting emotion, generally affected by circumstances. Joy was much more, shall we say, transcendent. It came from within, not dictated by what happened outside of us or to us. Joy was not something we sought after, but an abiding byproduct of God’s grace at work in our lives.
So where is Mom this Christmas day? For anyone who knew her, there is no question that Mom is spending Christmas in the presence of her First Love. All the metaphors of heaven – seeing loved ones, walking on streets of gold, living in a mansion – pale in comparison to what she really anticipated, seeing her Jesus face to face.
That won’t make sense to friends who have never experienced heaven on earth the way she did. She lived through wars and rumors of wars. She experienced betrayal and disappointment and human failings. She understood all too well how depraved we humans can be. My mother often said she didn’t need to watch soap operas on TV because she saw enough of that in real life.
But none of that darkness managed to dim her view of heaven, of Jesus, really. For her the dark glass between the here-now and eternity was far from opaque. My mother, after all, could see heaven from her seat at the organ.