"One world at a time," was the reply Henry Thoreau made to Parker Pillsbury when the latter asked Thoreau, who was not far from the other world, what his thoughts about that world were. But that is hardly the natural answer, nor is it an answer that satisfies. Everyone knows this couplet from Pope's "Essay on Man":
Hope springs eternal in the human breast—
Man never is, but always to be, blessed.
But who knows the next two lines:
The soul, uneasy and confined from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.
The three great questions of life are Whence? What? and Whither?—Whence have I come? What is my duty here? and, Whither am I going? Christian faith answers all three.
In that most peculiar and unusual book, Religio Medici, Sir Thomas Browne writes that when we begin to talk about the life after death we are like two infants in the womb discussing with one another the nature of this present life. We might infer from that that the difference between our present knowledge and apprehension of life to come, and the knowledge we shall possess when we awake in His likeness, will be no less great than that which exists between an unborn babe and a man in the strength of his days. When men enter with rash feet this field of the future life and begin to relate in detail its activities, there always rises before me that ridiculous picture of Thomas Browne, the two unborn babes telling each other about the world into which they are shortly to be born.
Think of what Bartimaeus saw when he received his sight! Think of the wonders of seeing for the first time a crowd of human beings just like himself, the walls and palm-tree groves of Jericho, the sky, so blue above him, and the hills of Moab in the distance. But that was not the first thing that he saw. The first thing that he saw was the face of Jesus, the face of the one who had healed him. And for you and me, too, that will be the greatest of all sights. When we awake from the dream men call life, when we put off the image of the earthy and break the bonds of time and mortality, when the scales of time and sense have fallen from our eyes and the garment of corruption has been put off, when this mortality has been put on immortality and this corruption has put on incorruption, when we awaken in the everlasting morning, that will be the sight that will stir us and hold us. Oh, there will be many wonderful sights there—the sea of glass mingled with fire; the great white throne; the river of the water of life; and the tree of life, that yielded her fruit every season; and those marvelous twelve gates, every gate a pearl; and those marvelous foundations of the walls, garnished with all manner of precious stones; and the faces of the patriarchs and the prophets, the apostles and the martyrs; and the faces of those we have loved long since and lost awhile. But most wonderful of all will be that face into which Bartimaeus looked that morning outside the gate of Jericho, after his eyes had been opened—the face of him who loved us and redeemed us, and washed us in his own precious blood.
When Jesus went to call Lazarus back from the grave, he wept. Some have wondered why he wept. The Jews must have thought it was from sorrow, because they said, "Behold how he loved him" (John 11:36). Yet we wonder why he wept, if he was going to call him back to life. Some have fancied that Jesus wept because for his present purposes it was necessary to call Lazarus back from the joys of heaven. When we mourn for the dead, it is sometimes a check to our grief to remember that they are with Christ. "They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more." (Rev. 7:16.) They are ever with the Lord. They shall reign forever and ever.
There is a lyric, "A Song of the Camp," by Bayard Taylor, which tells how before a charge was to be made by the British soldiers at Sevastopol the soldiers in the trenches, thinking of loved ones at home, were singing "Annie Laurie." Each soldier was thinking of a different woman, but the thought was expressed in one common song.
They sang of love, and not of fame;
Forgot was Britain's glory:
Each heart recalled a different name,
But all sang "Annie Laurie."
Izaak Walton on the banks of the Itchen, hearing the birds sing, exclaimed, "If thou, Lord, hast provided such music for sinners upon earth, what hast thou in store for thy saints in heaven!" The supreme disclosure of God' love and power will be sacrificial love. The lights of the heavens—sun, moon and stars—can all be put out, for the Lamb is the Light thereof.
In the Middle Ages a monk, Brother Thomas, went out from the monastery to gather sticks in the forest. As he was engaged in this task, he heard the singing of a bird, and ceased from his labors; entranced with the music. Such singing he thought, he had never heard before After a little the bird stopped singing, and the monk, taking up his bundle of fagots, returned to the monastery. When he rang the bell at the gate the brother who opened the door asked him who he was. "Why," said the monk, "I am Brother Thomas."
"But," said the other, "there is no Brother Thomas in this community."
"But," protested the monk, "I left the monastery not more than an hour ago to gather sticks in the wood."
Then, carefully scrutinizing him, the brother at the gate said, "I now recall that when one of our aged brothers died many years ago, he told us of a certain Brother Thomas who had gone out into the woods to gather sticks and had never returned. They supposed that he had been devoured by the wolves."
What Brother Thomas, entranced with the singing of the birds, supposed to be just a few minutes was a hundred years. So will it be with the music and the joys of the heavenly life.
The Manx poet T. E. Brown writes of a lighthouse off the Calf of Man. From the shore of the Calf a long slope runs off to the crest of the island. Near the top of the slope are the cottages inhabited by the families of the lighthouse keepers, their doors opening directly toward the lighthouse, which is separated from the mainland by a stretch of stormy sea. For months at a time the keepers cannot visit their families; but on a clear Sabbath, when the sun shines brightly, they solace themselves by looking through a powerful telescope at their wives and children gathered in front of the cottage doors.
Between us and the company of the beloved dead there stretches a sea which we may not cross till God bids us come. But there are days when, as it were, the fog lifts and the mists are dispelled, and by the aid of the glass of faith we behold them as they gather in the unclouded sunshine about the everlasting doors of our Father's house.