All the way to heaven is heaven.
A friend and her children were in the area visiting a relative, and I was invited to an early breakfast on a beautiful summer morning this past week.
Little Michael brought one of those mason jam jars over to the table where I was sitting. I thought it was empty, and then his mother said, “Shall we let them out so they can join their friends and family?”, and I looked at the jar again and saw three or four bugs were in there. “Lightning bugs,” his mama said, noticing my confusion. “We caught them last night.”
Michael shook his head no, he didn’t want to let them go just yet.
Lightning bugs, or fireflys--they are so cool, right? These miraculous little flying lamps with a built in generator. As a kid, it was always fun to run after them and catch them, put them in a little treasure jar. I was trying to remember the last time I saw lightning bugs. It seemed like there were lots of them when I was a little boy like Michael, but I hardly see them anymore. “Really?”, his mother said. “We see them all the time.”
Michael's aunt brought over a bird's nest that had been found abandoned in the eaves of the house. It was amazingly crafted of grasses, twigs, leaves, and some mud, with a perfectly-shaped bowl in the center for the eggs. I was fascinated. How many trips did it take for the bird to gather the construction materials, and how was it able to weave it together with no hands, just its little beak and feet? It was like a shrine, this little nest, where something wonderful and holy had taken place, a birth into the world. And once wings were operational, it was no longer needed.
Michael's mom was persistent. She reminded him that it would be better to release the lightning bugs so other little boys and girls could see them in the night. Lightning bugs belong to everyone, and so does their light. The wise mother began a little negotiation with her son, and after a treat was offered, the lightning bugs found their freedom.
Ice cream in hand, Michael waved goodbye to them as they flew away.
A little later I was on the phone with my sister who lives in Vermont. She had a guest over for brunch: Betty, a friend she met in church some years ago. “She’s right here. Would you like to talk to her?”. Sure, I said to my sister.
Betty is one of my favorite persons ever. Every day is a miracle to her, and every day Betty unconsciously and joyously reveals the treasures that lay all around us to anyone she encounters. I immediately thought of the nest and the lightning bugs—I knew she would love them.
“Hi Jim,” she said through the receiver.” It’s so good to talk to you.” Even on the phone I could hear her smiling at me. I asked her how was everything. “Oh, I lost my job. And I’m a little unsure of what I should be doing right now.” She assisted the staff at a nursing home, accompanying the residents to recreational activities, meals, and visits to doctors. She’s been doing it for years, and her pay grade for the work probably put her in the Dollar Store category. And here’s the thing: Betty is 85 years young, and I’m pretty sure all her life she has tried to be the face of love to everyone she meets, serving without counting the cost and revealing the presence of God in the simplest of things all around us.
Betty is one of those names that isn’t all that popular these days, but there was another Betty in my life who was also from another era: my Aunt Betty, sister of my father. I took a ride the other day, purposely passing by the house where she lived and eventually died. I loved my Aunt Betty, who was very quiet and very humble. She never wanted anyone to pay her attention, or to have to worry about her. As she got older, she began to shrink, and in her last years—she lived into her 90’s---her face was a fascinating landscape of ridges and furrows and canyons, skin that looked like an absurd exaggeration of the wrinkles you get when you're in the water too long. Her face was kind of caved in around the mouth since she lost her teeth, and her hair was white that in places had some yellow in it.
In all her years, I always knew Aunt Betty to be an avid gambler, mostly on lotto and on the slots at the casinos in Connecticut. One time when she was in her early 80's, I took her to get some lotto tickets. I asked her, if she won, what would she do with it? "Oh," she said, "I'd buy everything I've always wanted," she smiled, "and then I'd go to Foxwoods and throw it all into the slot machines!" And what if she won big then?, I asked. "Oh, I don't know, I'd think of something to do with it, probably bury it," she said. She never won big, ever, as far as I know. She lived in a very humble little house, wore inexpensive clothing, never went on a real vacation. If she ever did win big, I doubt anything would change, and somewhere I'm sure, the treasure would indeed be buried.
But if she buried it in those last years of her life, she wouldn't have remembered where it was because her memory was on automatic erase, a silent force moving within her memory banks, methodically removing the whole history of her life one item at a time. She had forgotten all the wonderful recipes with which she used to make the most incredible Hungarian food, especially her cookies. Even her speech was diminished: the simplest words she used to know vanished into thin air.
As I stopped in front of her house the other night, I remembered one of my last visits with her. She was struggling to get a sentence together with forgotten words., and then she stopped. "Ah, forget it," she said, putting her hands up in surrender, and letting the most beautiful smile dawn on her caved-in pruneface. I put my arms around her bony shoulders, and she murmured a sound that came from somewhere buried deep inside, 'mmmm', a sound of love in its greatest simplicity. Despite all the stolen moments, all the diminishments of a terrible disease, there was a treasure buried deep within that was still to be found.
It's the point of the parable Jesus offered. He talked about a man who found a treasure in a field and decided he wanted that treasure so much that he went and sold all he had to buy that field.
In those days it was not unusual to find a treasure in a field. When armies threatened a people's territory, families buried all their important stuff in a field, hoping to be able to come back to retrieve their treasure later. But often they were killed in the battles or driven away from the region forever, and the buried treasure was never recovered. Months or years later someone might be plowing the field and get lucky when they discovered the treasure that had been forgotten. Imagine how great you would feel if you found a treasure that had been buried like that!
The kingdom of heaven, Jesus says, can sometimes be just like such a buried treasure. Though we don’t notice it, the great treasure that is the kingdom of heaven is all around us in the very fields of life we walk through every day. It’s not way out there, but right here. Kind of like the first Betty I mentioned, Betty of Vermont, who sees the treasures right in front of her every day.
Let’s talk of treasures, shall we? There are the nests of birds, and the glow of lightning bugs, and all the Bettys in your life, of course. But the fields in God’s Kingdom also contain so much else:
There’s the sweet breath of your cousin’s newborn baby; the delicious taste of the firm black cherry you snuck into your mouth at the produce section of Stop and Shop; the gorgeous golden light of the sun that falls on your patio and on your cheeks while you are barbequing the steak; the genuine smile of the teenager who serves you cremolata at Ralph’s; the bright yellows and oranges and reds of your neighbors flowers on your way to work in the morning; the good-natured teasing of your friends about your latest romantic attachment; the gracious flight of the seagull who hovers over the ferry as you and it make your way back from Manhattan; the laughter of your little daughter; the soothing warmth of the shower on your back after an exhausting day; the pleasure of a really good book at the beach; the comforting arm of your mother or your father or your son or daughter when you have lost your job or your house or your spouse; the dreamy sigh of your dog as he lies contently upon your lap; the smell of your new car, and the smell of your grandmother’s house, and the smell of the sidewalk after a summer rain shower that brings cool air to your face; the moist touch of the lips of your beloved upon your hands, and your neck, and your face.
The treasures of heaven, of God’s Kingdom…why, there they are, everywhere. What prevents you from truly possessing them, what must you sell or give away, what must you give up in your life to enjoy the treasure that is awaiting you right now?
Here's another parable. A wise man settled down under a tree on the outskirts of a village. Suddenly a villager came running up to him and said, "The stone, the stone...please sir, give me the precious stone."
"What stone?," asked the wise man.
"Last night the Lord appeared to me in a dream," said the villager, " and told me that if I went to the outskirts of the village at dusk I would find a wise man who would give me a precious stone that would make me rich forever."
The wise man rummaged in his bag and pulled out a stone. "He probably meant this one," he said, and handed the stone over to the villager. "I found it on a forest path some days ago. You can certainly have it."
The man looked at the stone in wonder. It was a diamond, probably the largest diamond in the whole world, the size of a person's head. It had to be priceless. Then man excitedly took the diamond and walked away.
But all night he tossed about in bed, unable to sleep.
The next day at the crack of dawn he picked up the diamond and ran back to the wise man who was still sleeping under the tree. He woke him up, handed the stone back to him. and said, "I changed my mind. I don’t want the precious stone. Instead, please help me find the treasure that made it possible for you to give this diamond away so easily.”
To find the hidden treasure that God has buried all around us doesn't take all that much, just the wisdom of Solomon. Like a genie, God offers the new king Solomon anything he wants, and Solomon asks for only one thing: the wisdom of an understanding heart so that he can know what is right for his people. He asked for so little, just an understanding heart. And of course God gave that to him, and with that heart Solomon found the treasure that was buried all around him in the hearts of his own people.
Whether you are 8 or 88, the treasure we are all looking for is not to be found in the lotto or the job or the mall. The treasure, the pearl of great price that matters the most to us is much closer than we imagine.
Saint Catherine of Sienna said that “all the way to heaven is heaven”.
To find the heavenly treasure you are looking for, you need to ask the Genie for the same gift he gave to Solomon. In your humility, ask for an understanding heart to find your treasure in your wife, your husband, your mother, your father, your sons and daughters, your friends, even in the faltering memory of your aging aunt.
The good news is that the Kingdom of God, your treasure, is right here, right now. It’s flying right before your eyes like a lightning bug, shining a light on a world that is filled with heaven, because it’s true, you know.... All the way to heaven is heaven.