Friday, July 3, 2015
Treasures in Heaven
I offer this with my thanks to one of my favorite blogs, Friendly Skripture Study which recently explored Matthew 6:19-21. You can link to it here.
"Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on Earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in Heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."
When I read this, I could not help but think of two people who passed out of this life many years ago. I will interpret this biblical passage through the lens of my memory of my great-grandmother, Beth, and of her son-in-law, my grandfather, Theodore. They were ordinary people without much of what the world would call treasure to their names. They worked all their lives on farms and in factories and shops. They left me with no inheritance apart from their wisdom and their love.
While reading Matthew's comments on treasure and heaven, my great-grandmother immediately came to mind. She once said that she would gladly give up her place in Heaven if she could give it to a criminal here on earth. Some folks receive blessing after blessing in happy childhoods and strong communities. Their physical and emotional needs are fulfilled. Others begin life with such injustice and pain that they seem to fall from grace. Poverty, violence, and inequality are heaped upon some far more than on others. She did not take credit for her virtue but believed it came to her as an unmerited gift of circumstance. Her life, full as it was with love, made making good decisions easy. It made being good easy. She felt that those who committed crime or could not find their way to virtue, were in that situation because they had, for whatever reason, been deprived of the soul-sustaining comforts and the helping hand of loving relationships. They had not known the privileges of connections, security, and safety. She told her family that she had experienced her Heaven here on earth with those she loved. She would give up her place in Heaven for another soul. Her view of Heaven and the way she linked it to social justice have always stayed with me.
My grandfather came to mind because he taught me how to seek treasure. I remember how he told me that he wanted me to go to college not to learn how to make a living, but to learn how to make a life. Even if I didn't use my knowledge to earn money or make a career, to seek knowledge and to love it would make my life more meaningful, more valuable, more rich in treasure. Because I know the man he was, I also know that he did not simply mean knowledge for its own sake but as a means of increasing wisdom and understanding. Grandpa organized his entire life around love and found the deepest meaning in that love. I felt clear that he sent me off toward my education with a strongly implied directive. "Seek out knowledge, beauty, understanding, and wisdom. Be full of gratitude for the wonders you find in the world and the people in it. Be generous. Be kind. Be light-filled. Magnify the good."
Now mind you, if my grandfather had ever made such a speech, it would have knocked us out of our chairs. He was painfully shy and very quiet. He was more likely to say a few short words of support than to make speeches. He was more likely to smile quietly than to laugh out loud, but his eyes would twinkle and he would gaze at us proudly when we came home and told him about our projects and our passions. He believed each of us was an expression of life's miracle. When I was a small child, I sat on his lap with my little hand in his. He would tell me how marvelous the human hand was and what a miracle could be found in the opposable thumb. I remember gazing at my own hand and feeling connected to all humanity and its potential. He sent each of his children and his grandchildren into the world with his expectation and hope that his curiosity and wonderment would go with us. And so it did and for that inheritance of treasure, I am ever thankful.
My great-grandmother and my grandfather believed their lives were blessed, rich, full of treasure. Others would have disagreed. Theo had a speech impediment and walked on bowed legs. He lost his oldest sister to a fire and his father to tuberculosis. Finally, just as he was coming of age, his mother died and he and his orphaned brothers and sisters were cheated out of their family farm. As a young adult, he watched sibling after sibling die at a young age and lived his entire (ironically) long life in fear of death and separation from his loved ones. He worked until he was 85 and then, following his doctors' medical neglect, nearly died of an long-untreated aneurysm which was followed by five long years of dementia ending in his death.
His mother-in-law, Beth, was an immigrant to the United States. She lost her beloved brother to the First World War, had to leave her family in England to make a life for herself in the States, struggled to raise a family on a Upstate New York farm during the Great Depression, saw two sons traumatized by World War II, and despite being an artist, a poet, and a schoolteacher, had to take a job in a factory to support her terminally ill husband in his last years before his premature death. She lived as a widow for many years before she died of breast cancer at 87.
Both of them suffered their share of sorrows and carried their own heavy burdens, but they both knew and celebrated the treasures they had and the treasures that they passed along to us. We cherish Beth's poems which are about the simple joys of life and her steadfast belief in human equality. We have her oil paintings and her watercolors in which she lovingly captured the beauty around her, a vase of flowers, a favorite book, the woods in the fall. She was a prolific painter and gave her work away to many friends and family who admired it. Her paintings hang in almost every room in my home and in those of my extended family. One of her oil paintings hangs in the community library and I love to point it out to my children to remind them of Gram's spirit. Her poems and paintings are a wonderful legacy and we are proud of them, but they are still just things and those things, paper and canvas, ink and paint, will fade away. What will last will be her joy, her love, her dignity and grace. Her love of beauty in simple things was shared over and over again until it became a habit in all of us who descended from her. Several of us have careers in the arts or have made craft and creativity a central theme in our lives. More importantly, as we create, we do so with her central teaching that creativity matters. Love matters. Equality matters. Any woman who would give up her place in heaven not only for "the less fortunate" but for the most despised here on earth cannot help but leave the world aglow in treasure.
Likewise, my grandfather, Theodore, through hard work and self-denial, left his wife, and therefore those of us who continue to care for her in her old age, a nest egg of savings. He ensured that she would have a physical home to live in for the remainder of her life, that she could continue to pay for her health care, and that so long as she lived simply, she would not go without. But that is just money and with prolonged illness and the relentless march of time, it too dwindles and disappears. He gave us so much more than that. We have story after story of wisdom and kindness from my grandfather. These Grandpa-stories are shared each time the family comes together. These are mostly funny stories that end with his constant message of patience, tolerance, and kindness.
Beth must have seen that in him after he married her daughter. My grandpa, the man who told me to go learn and seek out the meaningful and the worthy was her son-in-law and she chose to live close to him and to her daughter after her husband died. She must have appreciated his loyal spirit, and she painted a special painting just for him. She knew that his own vulnerabilities, his speech impediment and his tremendous shyness gave him gifts of sensitivity and gentleness. When her husband was full of sorrow, she had called on Theodore to spend time with him, not to "cheer him up" but because she knew her son-in-law's heart was tender enough to listen closely and to love unconditionally. Her husband, like her, was an artist and yet he struggled to make his way as a farmer. He struggled with an injured heart, both physically and metaphorically. So Beth sent Theodore out to the fields to spend time with him. She knew that sometimes we do not need to be cheered. We need to be heard. We need others to see the light that shines in us.
In the end, and from the beginning, the Light is our treasure. We are called to shine and we are called to see others shine and to glory in it. I think we miss it because we expect something brash and bold and stupendous. Perhaps we expect trumpets and angels, but sometimes, most times, it is a very humble and human thing. You can find it in the treasure house of our curious minds and our loving hearts. Once, long ago, Grandpa held my little hand in his and told me what a miracle it is to be human. When he closed his great, work-worn hand around mine it was as if he had pressed treasure beyond measure into my palm. Our riches are our passions and hopes and creative souls. We build our fortunes when we work for each other, honor each other, celebrate each other. Our treasure is Love, not of the Hallmark variety, but the kind of love my grandfather gave me when he looked at me and saw a miracle. Our heaven is each other. So go out and paint and write poetry. Go out and raise children and work hard. Go out and learn and be filled, forever, with the wonder of it. Go out and let your paintbrush dance and your eyes twinkle and your heart ache. Teach this human miracle to others. Love them into the fullness of their lives. Hear them into the fullness of their Voice. Give without counting the cost. Follow the advice George Fox gave us:
"Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world answering that of God in everyone; whereby in them you may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you."
Let your love for all people everywhere so fill you and enrich you that you cannot help but declare that it is enough and more than enough. Give up your place in Heaven for love's sake and Heaven's treasures will pour down upon you.