Judah probably heard it several times, the story of his great-grandfather's death, when his great-grandmother—Gran-gran—sat next to the bed and told her beloved just before he passed to wait for her at the gate. He heard it again at her funeral just before we sang "When All of God's Singers Get Home," when his uncle said, "I can imagine them walking through that gate hand-in-hand, two of God's singers just got home."
That was two days before Thanksgiving, and a few days later he told his parents that he wanted to add something to his prayer list: that Gran-gran could find her husband in Heaven. He had never known "her husband," who passed almost exactly a year before Judah was born. Evidently he had imagined the scene and wondered how they could possibly find each other in the crowd and he didn't want Gran-gran to be lonely. His daddy assured him that they had probably already found each other and were together again.
He continued asking questions about the man he never knew, so when he came for Christmas I asked if he would like to see some pictures. We had just gone through my mother's things and I had several at hand, from the seventeen year old high school graduate to the twenty-five year old Army draftee in Korea to the sixty-five year old gray-headed retiree, many with his sweetheart from high school days, Judah's Gran-gran. I told him that we all called him Papa because that is what I had called my grandfather too. By the end of the session, he could point to even a picture from the 1950s and say, "There is Papa." Gran-gran's husband had become a real person to him, someone he was related to.
I was thinking about the preciousness of all of this when it suddenly occurred to me that I knew people who would have tsk-tsked me for telling my seven year old grandson that his great-grandparents were back together in Heaven. They would have pointed to stories in the Bible to prove that is not what life after death actually is—at least not yet. In fact, I can think of a few who would have accused me of lying to the child.
I recall at least three Biblical depictions of life after death. Each is different, and every one of them involve some sort of figurative language. Who are we to say that one or the other is the true and literal picture? God gave us those images to comfort us. Each has a point that makes us less afraid of death and more confident in our own destiny. As a parent or grandparent, God expects me to give my own children images they can relate to just as He did for His children. It isn't lying to talk about "waiting at the gate" any more than it is for God to tell us about streets of gold and pearly gates or for Jesus to say, "I am the good shepherd," when he was actually a carpenter. I am simply following my heavenly Father's example in comforting my children.
Like the Pharisees, somewhere along the way we have missed the point of it all. We have, as Jesus cautioned, "strained out the gnats and swallowed the camel," Matt 23:24. We have forgotten how patient Jesus was with the weak and the babes: "a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; (Matt 12:20). Instead we go plowing through the shrubbery heedless of anything but making our point and "being correct," when the whole point of figurative language is not to be literal at all.
A seven year old child is now comforted. As he matures in the Word he will come to know that what he was told was an image to help him understand and make him feel better. He will know that no, it probably was not exactly that way—those gates are figurative after all. But he will have learned the point in a way he will never forget: that God loves His children and plans to live with them forever, and that his great-grandparents are among those children. And, even better, he can be with them again one day.
But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. (Matt 18:6).