When I was a child my family would make the trek to Dallas at least once a year to visit my grandmother. Inevitably at some point on our visit with my grandmother we would leave her house and drive over by the fair grounds to visit Gertrude. Gertrude lived in an unassuming little white house on a raised foundation with a nice front porch, which probably was much smaller than it looked to me as a kid. The neighborhood was in an older section of Dallas and predominantly consisted of lower income families. Gertrude was a little old black woman who would answer the door in her house-coat while peering out at us from behind horned-rimmed glasses. Upon recognizing who was knocking on her door, her face would break into a big wide grin. While I didn’t quite understand as a kid why we would always go to visit Gertrude it began to make sense to me as the years passed. I suspect that my Dad wanted to give back to this woman something of what she’d given him over the years. These visits were a personal “thank-you” card of sorts because my dad had come to genuinely love this woman as his own kind of surrogate grandmother. Though she had just been a maid in my dad’s house growing up she had truly become family to him.
When I think of Gertrude the one word that comes to mind is joy. Gertrude was full of joy - not the type of worked up, positive-thinking, personal pep-rally kind of joy, but a deep abiding joy that emanated from the core of her soul. She was already pretty old when I began visiting her and as the years progressed she would suffer hearing loss and other physical ailments. However, she was not the type to waste her words on complaining or bad talking. And even when she did discuss her problems they would not diminish her joy. As we sat in her tiny living room we heard her tell stories of how she met Billy Graham when he was just beginning to preach and how she encouraged him and stories of the years she worked as a made for various families in Dallas. The contrast between Gertrude’s exuberant joy and her very humble way of life has really come to fascinate me over the years. Though she had grown up in poverty and still towards the end of her life didn’t have much in the way of material possessions or money, she was very rich indeed – rich in life and love and joy.
My visits to Gertrude as a child would always be in the context of seeing my grandmother which made Gertrude’s joy seem that much greater in contrast to the way my grandmother lived. My grandmother Margaret had lived a life of relative comfort and ease growing up in a well-to-do family in north Mississippi. However, even though she hadn’t known economic hardship and was well taken care of, her experience and view of life was quite different. A conversation with my grandmother would typically be filled with obsessive comments of how bad the world was getting, of how bad the neighbor over there was, and of how she couldn’t stand this or that. For my grandmother negativity wasn’t a random place she would visit from time to time but the place she lived. Though Margaret had taken my dad and uncle to church when they were growing up she never had a life-transforming experience with God. For her church was just a social thing one did. The fundamental concepts of Christianity like forgiveness and God’s love never took root in her soul. Increasingly her life journeyed down the road of unforgiveness to bitterness and resentment. Bit by bit her grudges as hurt pushed even her closest of friends away.
Gertrude became my grandmother’s housekeeper when my dad and uncle were just boys. In her weekly visits to my grandmother’s house, Gertrude would pray over my dad and uncle’s beds when she was tidying up their rooms—prayers that accumulated over weeks and years. Even after my father left home and was getting into the whole hippy scene and all it entailed, Gertrude was praying for him. Though he’d grown up with only a very peripheral encounter with religion Gertrude’s years of praying were answered as my father met Jesus. And because he met Jesus I in turn was exposed to God as a child. This woman, living in relative obscurity, and faithfully interceding for my father had a profound effect on my family.
Both Gertrude and my grandmother died a few years ago. When I look at both of them I get a real sense of how heaven and hell play out in this life. While Gertrude became ever filled with joy and life and love, my grandmother’s life became more and more filled with fear, anger, unforgiveness and bitterness. The last years of my grandmother’s life were spent mostly alone. I remember my grandmother couldn’t even bring herself to respond with “I love you” when I or someone else from the family would end a phone conversation with an “I love you”. The resentment and bitterness in her heart had turned her life into a little bit of hell on earth. However every time I visited Gertrude she was more and more filled with Joy. Even as she developed diabetes, and as hear hearing got bad and her eye-sight faded she was exuberant with life until the end. In fact in her later years many of the adult children from the families for whom she had worked years before would send her money monthly or bring her a turkey for thanksgiving. Gertrude lived her life in such a way that, even in obscurity, she brought a little heaven to earth. Gertrude was never a victim though she had many opportunities to play that card. She simply took what she had and made her life count. Even in her last few years of life in that tiny house in Dallas she was experiencing heaven while on the other side of town my grandmother was experiencing hell.
Too often we make Christianity about a ticket on the glory-bound train or a good life insurance policy. We have altar calls where we say things like “If you die tonight would you spend the rest of eternity in heaven or hell?” This line of evangelism was not the type of thing Jesus ever concerned himself with in his earthly ministry. He said things like “If you know me you will know life, overflowing, abundant life.” Jesus never put things in terms of the sweet “by and by” but in terms of the here and now. His message was much more concerned with following him in the now, knowing life in the now, asking God’s kingdom to come here in the present. The question should not be if you die tonight where would you go but if you continue to live tomorrow and the next day and maybe fifty more years then how will you live?
As Christians we become so misguided some times. We live our lives trying to accumulate wealth and position and grasping after every trinket and promise for happiness only to find that we’re looking in the wrong places and looking for the wrong things. And then we get a glimpse of someone like Gertrude who is richer by far than the billionaires of our age. The truth is that if we follow Jesus whether in obscurity or prominence we will experience life, heaven, joy, peace and love; And many times in the midst of pain and struggle, suffering and trials. But the flipside is that when we follow our own way we will inevitably experience hell on earth. Though we may accumulate great material wealth and fame and all that our world has to offer, inwardly we will whither away becoming a shell of what God intended us to be. Instead of rich meaningful relationships with our creator and other humans we will become bitter, resentful, and ultimately alone. We must begin to understand that heaven and hell begin right here in the seemingly small and random circumstances in our lives and the ways we in which we choose respond.