So long thy power hath blest me, sure it still will lead me on, o’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till the night is gone, and with the morn those angel faces smile, which I have loved long since, and lost awhile. by John Henry Newman
I didn’t know of this hymn before 2013, when Dallas Willard quoted the last two lines in the Knowing Christ Conference (now published as Living in Christ’s Presence by IVP). As he taught about God’s joyfulness and about heaven, he recalled the line about the angel faces, and he teared up. I was sitting at home, attending the conference online, and I also teared up and wanted to understand what was going on inside of him. His face was full of joy and longing and hope. We knew he was fighting pancreatic cancer, and some of his closest loved ones were sitting right in front of him in the first row as he taught. It was intense.
It made me me deeply curious about our ongoing lives after our bodies quit. Gary Black helped me think better about everlasting life in Preparing for Heaven, his work compiling Dallas’ ideas and his experience with dying. Gary was with Dallas, working with him on the book, as the cancer was destroying Dallas’ body.
I never got to meet Dallas in person, but he’s among a group of people with kind, glorious faces that I have known and lost for awhile. I can’t wait to see them again or meet them for the first time.
My Dad’s mother, Grandma Anna, suffered terribly for many years with rheumatoid arthritis. She was on her deathbed when our family visited in 1963. I was just six weeks old. Mom loved to tell me about Anna’s quiet joyfulness and how she adored me during that visit. “Florence, come sit with me and nurse that baby.”
Wilbur Konkel, pioneer missionary to Liberia, was the first pastor I can remember at our little church in Oakland. Wilbur Konkel loved children, and he captured my imagination with his stories of Africa and with the giant python skin he kept rolled up in a satchel. Each Sunday he gave my brother and me a coin if we had read a chapter of scripture daily that week. We used to read Psalm 117 a lot to game his system, but now I’m blessed with having that shortest of all chapters easily and permanently memorized. One Sunday I confessed that I had skipped a day. With a twinkle in his eye, he still gave me a quarter and told me to keep on reading.
I hope I will be remembered as one of these shining ones for my family and others. I remember Dallas Willard saying, “Glory always shines!” I’ve been noticing a strong connection between this radiance in godly people and the music in their souls. Colossians 3 urges us to have melodies in our hearts to the Lord and to sing to each other with all sorts of songs. These radiant people I’ve known have enjoyed melodies that couldn’t be contained, and their singing has been glorious.
One old friend, Lois Stetson, was a terrible, glorious singer. When I was a little kid, she used to mop floors in the evenings in a school building by our house. (She did this after serving all day as a principal and teacher). When she thought no one was around, she would typically be singing badly to Jesus. I remember thinking it was funny, but I certainly knew it was the real deal. It was joy and light! Her face seemed really shiny during church, and I remember her rhapsodizing about the book of Colossians.
I wonder if Lois Stetson and Dallas Willard have bumped into each other yet. Maybe they enjoy singing with Mom as she plays a grand piano in the presence of our Lord and Savior Jesus. Maybe Gabriel joins in with the cello? Hey, why not? I wonder if God would enjoy putting them together with some other angel faces and blessing me with a little welcoming committee when my body here quits working. I wouldn’t put it past Him. His shining, joyful face is the reason for all of these other folks being so shiny, and His generosity is creative and particular toward each of us.
“What Jesus teaches us is that within his presence and with his word, we begin to live in heaven now, and that’s why he says that those who keep his word will never experience death, as human beings understand it. There is a continuity of life through what we view as death from this point of view, because we do see people die. Their bodies stop working, but they continue to exist as the people they are in the presence of God. I think many people do not realize they’ve died until later. Then they recognize that something is different. I love that line from John Henry Newman’s old song “Lead, Kindly Light”: “With the morn those angel faces smile / Which I have loved long since and lost a while.” See, that’s the continuity. Really, that’s the continuity of life: life now, in the action and presence of God with his people.”
Willard, Dallas; Ortberg, John (2013-12-26). Living in Christ’s Presence: Final Words on Heaven and the Kingdom of God (pp. 83-84). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.
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