Heading home to California recently, a friend and I passed through the DallasFort Worth airport. On the way to the connecting gate, we heard loud patriotic music playing and saw a group, mostly women, wearing colorful hats, cheering, and waving American flags. The troops were coming home, and here was their welcoming committee.
Two women encouraged us to grab flags and join in. We were early for our next flight, so we took places in the makeshift greeting line. At first, a few soldiers just dribbled by. We whooped and waved our flags furiously. Then the pace picked up as dozens of men and women in uniform came barreling through. We kept repeating: "Welcome home! We're glad you're back! We appreciate you!" Some soldiers wiped away tears, while others displayed huge, self-conscious smiles.
One young soldier looked not a day over 15. The young women were just like all girls their age: each guy had a backpack, but the girls had rolling luggage loaded up with four or five bags. We laughed. "Women! It doesn't matter whether you're in the Army or heading to Macy's. We have to have our stuff!"
After 45 minutes, it was time to catch our flight. We hugged the organizers and thanked the vets who had come to honor this generation of soldiers. As we sank into our seats for the flight, we felt humbled by participating in this sweet moment of coming home. It was impossible not to draw the obvious spiritual parallels. These men and women had taken oaths of faithfulness and service. They had fought courageously, lived with deprivation, danger, and disease, and took unbelievable risks, all for the good of our nation.
But as great as America is, it is a temporary place. No nation lives forever. As believers in Christ, we are all soldiers in the Lord's army. We, too, take oaths of fidelity, sacrifice, and service. Our oaths of allegiance are to a kingdom that shall never end—a country where there is never a mistake in leadership, where justice flows down like a river, where poverty, disease, terror, hunger, and greed hold no power.
Scripture teaches us about the welcome and rewards we will receive when our battle on earth is over. Artists, writers, and theologians have all taken stabs at imagining what those moments of heavenly welcome will look like. Comics even joke about "a rabbi, a priest, and a pastor" at heaven's gates. But that afternoon, we were not thinking of Saint Peter jokes. We were visualizing the very moment when we would step into eternity.
As my friend, Elizabeth, and I looked at each other, the same thought crossed our minds. Through misty eyes, she said, "If I get there first, I'll be on your welcoming committee. I'll be jumping up and down, screaming, 'You made it! I'm so proud of you!'"
I laughed and said, "Oh, you're not going to beat me. I'll be there before you. I'm older. I'll be at the head of the line to greet you!" In that moment, heaven was more real than the smell of the stale coffee in our foam cups.
What I'm really wondering about is this: Will we be surprised at who gets the biggest welcome? I'm not coveting more high-fives, but I am dimly aware of something so profound and holy that I can barely put it into words.
All of us fight unseen battles every day, each believer a secret soldier locked in battle with forces no one else can see. The bravest among us are not necessarily those who fight with guns or tanks. The bravest person you know might be your husband or wife or neighbor or coworker who goes on living one more day when every bone in his or her body says it's no use.
How much courage and tenacity does it take to enter this hidden war zone every day when an unseen Enemy is whispering (or shouting), "Let it go; give up! There is no hope for a better tomorrow"?
The loudest cheers in heaven's victory stands may not be reserved for the obvious heroes. They may go instead to the young man who chose to face the crushing disappointments of life, or the person who learned to ignore his Enemy's taunts. The most applause might go to the woman who refused to surrender her joy to the evil forces that never stopped reminding her of her brokenness.
The hidden battles often involve hand-to-hand combat and leave us exhausted. How much more bearable would this daily fight be if we knew we were not alone?
How much could we lighten the load for another just by telling him how brave we think he is? Oh, to be so merciful with fellow soldiers fighting their personal, hidden wars.
Best of all, how much better when we bring undisclosed struggles into community, where victories can be celebrated together, great losses mourned together, and where whoops of encouragement can provide even the most weary soldier the courage it takes to keep on keeping on, one more day.
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Other Christianity Today articles on heaven include:
Finding Heaven | Where is heaven, and how will we experience it before the final resurrection? (April 6, 2005)
The Hope of Heaven | Have Christians forfeited their rightful anticipation of eternity? (June 1, 2003)
Heaven: Not Just an Eternal Day Off | As if anticipating the question, Will life on the new earth be boring? the Bible points to much activity there. (June 1, 2003)
Harleys in Heaven | "What Christians have thought of the afterlife, & what difference it makes now" (June 1, 2003)
Kay Warren's previous Seriously Disturbed columns include:
Needed: More 'Miracles' | My grandchild barely survived birth. Worldwide, too many newborns do not. (December 3, 2008)
The Only Hope for Monsters | We can't defeat evil in the world without facing the evil in ourselves. (October 15, 2008)
Joining the Resistance | It took seeing seven-year-old prostitutes to jolt me out of my apathy. (August 13, 2008)
Talk and Walk | Getting our body in sync with our message. (June 5, 2008)
Wiping out HIV | It's good for the soul to fight the virus. (April 28, 2008)
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