One quiet evening many years ago, I was sitting on the screened-in porch of our old family cottage when I heard the music of bagpipes. Curious, I followed the sound, which me led as far as I could go, down to the shore of the lake. Somewhere across the water, I could hear the piper playing. The evening was quiet and the lake was still, and the sound carried so well that I could hear every haunting note with perfect clarity. Though I could not see him, it was as if he was playing right beside me.
I sat for a time to listen, quietly singing along from time to time as he played songs that told of the great deeds of Scotland the Brave, songs that yearned for The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond and, inevitably, songs that recounted God’s Amazing Grace. That night was only the first of many times he provided us with impromptu concerts, and the more I heard him play the more I grew curious to know who and where he was. One evening I finally decided to find this mysterious piper, so I got into my canoe and began paddling across the lake. I had assumed that because of the volume and clarity of the music he must be close by, but no matter how far I went, he was still just a little further ahead. The music, it seemed, was carried almost endlessly across the placid surface of the lake.
In the past year, no place has been more on my heart and no subject more on my mind than heaven. I have known about heaven since my youngest days and believed in it for as long as I have believed in anything. But my knowledge has always been abstract and my interest has always been distant. Heaven was for later, not for now, a subject that should concern me only when I was older, only when I myself was near to dying. And that was true until a single moment made heaven so very real and so very urgent.
It still shocks me to write the words: I have a son in heaven. There is much that is mysterious about heaven, much that remains opaque as we study the scriptures with clouded eyes and weakened minds. But one thing we can know with absolute certainty is that heaven is a place of music, a place of singing, a place of great orchestras and mighty choirs. In John’s revelation of what is and what is to be, he sees musicians and describes their music. He listens as choirs of men and angels sing out their praises to God. He marvels as the nations gather to fall on their faces and cry out in worship. He rejoices hearing the voice of a vast multitude singing “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.” Whatever else is true of heaven, it is most certainly a place of music.
Of all the “normal” things I found difficult to return to in the aftermath of Nick’s death, singing was near the forefront, and particularly singing with the local church. There is something about joining voices and joining hearts with other Christians that is so very moving. I still often find a lump growing in my throat and tears springing to my eyes when we sing together. It is rare that I can get through the songs without being nearly overcome by my emotions. And I can’t help but think the reason is that the singing we do in our little congregation is not merely a foretaste of our worship in that great heavenly congregation, but a real participation in it. There is a sense in which our worship extends far beyond the four walls of our little building and reaches to the very gates of heaven.
Christians have long affirmed what we call “the communion of the saints.” We profess that God has one people, not two. And though for a time his church exists partially triumphant in heaven and partially militant on earth, it is truly undivided, for we have all been permanently joined together through our living Savior. We profess this reality in some of our best-loved songs. In “For All the Saints,” for example, we who are on earth tell of the unity we have with those who are in heaven:
Oh, bless’d communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine,
yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.
In “The Church’s One Foundation” we sing of the mysterious but still real fellowship we enjoy.
Yet she on earth hath union
With God the Three in One,
And mystic sweet communion
With those whose rest is won:
O happy ones and holy!
Lord, give us grace that we,
Like them, the meek and lowly,
In love may dwell with Thee.
And in “Blest Be the Tie That Binds” we express the truth that even through the pain of separation our unity remains undisrupted.
When we are called to part,
it gives us inward pain;
but we shall still be joined in heart,
and hope to meet again.
Because we are joined to Christ, we are joined to one another and can have a sure and steady confidence that we shall meet again. And oh, I long to meet my boy again. I long to see him, long to hug him, long to hear his voice. I long to worship with him as we did so many times over so many years. I repent of ever thinking little of the privilege it was to stand as a family—a complete family—to worship our God together.
But I rejoice that in a very real sense we still do worship together, for we are bound together by the “blest tie” of our shared love for Christ. I have heard it said that when we sing today we are preparing ourselves to take our place in that heavenly choir. While that’s true, it’s not entirely true, for there is a sense that when we sing today we are really and truly taking our place in that great assembly. We are joining our voices together as Christ’s one people, Christ’s one church, Christ’s one choir.
And so, when I stand with God’s people to sing God’s praises, I have a new awareness that I do not sing alone. We as a church do not sing alone. Rather, when we lift our voices, we join them with the singing voices of the saints of all the ages. The earthly and the heavenly, the militant and the triumphant, the ones longing for Christ’s presence and the ones basking in it sing as one, for we are one. And as I sing I listen, for I am sure that in my heart I am beginning to hear my voice joining with Nick’s as we each take up our place in the very same choir. As the piper’s music once carried across the lake and reached my ear, the strains of heaven’s music carry across time and space to touch my heart and give me hope.