For my son Stephen, Hartsville, Tennessee was home. It wasn't that he was born here. In fact he only lived here for a year and a half. However, there was no doubt that he loved his life in this community, and he especially enjoyed his friends at Grace Baptist Church. Without fail, whenever I would bring up some new point in theology that I wanted to teach Stephen, he would look at me with playful, whimsical eyes and say, "Does this mean we have to change churches?" Always I would say no, and then he would smilingly respond, "Okay Dad we can talk about it." He didn't want to talk about theology unless he could be reassured that we were not changing churches.
During Steve's thirteen years we moved seven times and lived in eight different houses. Sometimes in teasing him I would say, "We have been in Tennessee for almost four years now; it's time to move again." If I didn't get out of his way he would playfully hit me in the shoulder. Indeed it was a good idea for me to move quickly, because sometimes he hit too hard, and it hurt. When he overdid it I made him do twenty push-ups as a reminder not to be too rough on his Dad. He was a good sport about it. Of course the push-ups only served to strengthen him and make him hit me harder the next time. But that was okay; it was fun to see him get stronger. But what he demonstrated with a playful punch understated the strong, powerful feelings in his heart: this community was home.
However, it wasn't quite that easy when we first moved from Tallahassee, Florida to Lebanon, Tennessee. Lebanon is a nice town, but at first it didn't seem like home at all. The realities of living in a more urban environment made it necessary to restrict his freedom over what he had enjoyed in Florida. Plus he just missed his old friends. Home seemed 580 miles away. Then one day God used an incident of childhood mischief to teach all of us a lesson about the meaning of home.
One of Steve's friends on our street had become very upset with an older couple. On a day while this friend was out selling candy the older man got angry with him. It had something to do with the boy banging furiously at his door while the man was taking a shower. When the man interrupted his shower to answer the door and found that it was only a kid selling candy, he was very irritated and spoke roughly. Greatly offended this friend looked for a way to get revenge. One day he convinced Steve to join him in one of his pranks. During this time Steve had also been offended by a different older man, and between the two of them, they were convinced that many of the older people on their street were mean and hated kids.
The older couple had a bright red front door. Steve and his friend covered the door with shaving cream, then finding that he had some left, filled the mailbox.
Unknown to them, a neighbor had witnessed their misdeeds. She called the older couple. Then they all walked down to my house and explained to Nan and me what Steve and his friend had done.
I was furious and quickly marched down the street to find Stephen, leaving Nan and the neighbors far behind me. When I found Steve, he was at his friend's house playing basketball. I confronted them immediately, and they confessed. Finally the older couple walked up.
At first the older man was loud and very demanding of Steve's friend. Then an amazing thing happened. Rather than yelling, rather than being threatening, the older couple was kind and gentle. They talked softly to the kids. They hugged them. They forgave them. The man's wife even invited them over for cookies. I could not believe what I was seeing and hearing. I never expected to see this couple be so ready to be reconciled to these kids and to forgive them.
As for Steve, he did get punished. After my wife convinced me that being grounded for three months was a bit extreme, I reduced the sentence to one month. Steve didn't object to this. After he discovered what this couple was really like, he was sorry he had bothered them. In fact, later when I would mention the incident in reference to some teaching point in the Bible, he would beg me not to remind him of what he had done. He was very embarrassed. But what really amazed me was what he said that day after we got back from his friend's house. This is what he said: "Since we moved to Tennessee, this is the first time that I have felt like I was home."
Not sure how to respond, I just nodded my head. But over the following months I continued to wonder about what this meant to Steve. How was it that Steve could come out of this incident, an incident that had led to embarrassment and punishment, with that feeling of being home? I wondered whether it had something to do with the undeserved and unearned love and forgiveness he had just received.
Perhaps home is the kind of place where people can see you for what you are, know all your faults and short-comings, and still love you. Maybe home is the sort of place where people not only forgive you, but are anxious to be reconciled. Perhaps home is where people really do practice 1 Corinthians 13:7 where it says that love
Bears all things
Believes all things
Hopes all things
Endures all things
No doubt, the word home carried a lot of meaning for Stephen. On the evening of February 8, 2001, after Steve's bicycle accident, one of our deacons was driving in his car and praying fervently for him. At that point all he knew was that Steve was seriously injured.
Then an amazing thing happened. Suddenly he felt release from the burden to pray for Steve, and much to his surprise he looked up and saw Steve's image in his windshield. Steve had the happiest smile he had ever seen. Then Steve said two words: "I'm home." As soon as he said this he disappeared. The man looked at his watch. Later he would be able to verify that this event had occurred shortly after Steve had died.
Knowing what the word home meant to Steve, it is easy to imagine what he had just experienced in heaven. Can you imagine standing before Jesus Christ? As you stand there you realize that he knows every sin you have ever committed. He knows every wicked thought you have ever entertained in your mind. He knows all of this. Yet he stands there with his arms opened wide. Like a warm and soothing ointment, that healing balm of forgiveness floods your soul. Your joy is so thick it seems to cover you and float all around you like a river. Suddenly all the memories of yesterday and all the aspirations for the future seem to melt away in insignificant puddles in the wonder of the glorious present.
By God's grace Steve was permitted to turn away for just a moment and to give that blessed word of encouragement that will comfort us for the rest of our lives, "I'm home."
In August of this year a grave marker will be placed where Stephen's body is buried. On that marker will be those wonderful words, "I'm home." They will be in quotes. And when you see the quotes you will know why. It's a quote from a boy who has personally experienced the joy of heaven.
This is what we are waiting for. This is what lies ahead of us just over the horizon. This is our hope and our future, the fulfillment of our deepest longings, and the consummation of our highest aspirations. Indeed for all of us who know Jesus as our lord and savior, to be absent from the body is to be home with him.
Thank you Lord Jesus for your promise to take us home.