Sally and Stevie attend the same church, but they are not part of the same set. They greet one another in church and occasionally exchange a few pleasantries about some banal subject—the weather, the church picnic, or the general depravity of the nation. That’s about it.
Sally’s set is the Bible-reading, long-praying, bold-witnessing set. She teaches Sunday School, memorizes Scripture, and shows up with her family every time the doors of the church are open. She has a smile for everyone, never becomes angry, and runs her family efficiently. Her children and her husband rise up and call her blessed. Though she pretends not to know it, her friends call her Saintly Sally.
Stevie’s set? Well, Stevie doesn’t really have a set. Though he always hopes to be included, he is socially ungifted. When he manages to back a conversation partner into a corner, his victim typically glances frantically around, looking for a kind soul who will sacrifice himself by distracting Stevie’s attention. It is a vain hope.
Sally has gotten into the habit of mentally referring to him as Stupid Stevie. His lack of social grace carries over into the workplace, which has cost him several jobs. Stupid Stevie. When he gets a little money, he spends it because he deserves a vacation or a new toy. Therefore, his family is always dangling over the brink of insolvency. No one at church can understand how they manage to hang on. Stupid Stevie.
At home, Stevie insists on being the center of attention. Fortunately, he is not a violent man, but he exercises his power in other ways. He says “no” to his wife and children at every opportunity because it feeds his ego. He has never learned the power of “yes.” Stevie complains endlessly that he doesn’t receive the respect he deserves. If he would listen, the folk at church would like to tell him that he has not earned the respect of his family. Stupid Stevie.
Sally sometimes wonders what kind of place Stevie could ever fill in heaven. “Maybe the Lord will assign him the task of cleaning the toilets,” she says to herself with a chuckle. “I think he might manage that if the toilets in heaven never get dirty.”
How does Stevie see his relationship to God? His connection to the Lord feels like a greased grapevine. He swings through the jungle of life always just a few feet above the hungry lions. Hand over hand, hand over hand—Stevie tries to climb up to Jesus. He believes in Jesus. He wants to be near Jesus, but whenever he makes a bit of progress, fate squirts a little more grease on the grapevine and down he slides. His great fear is that he will reach the end of the vine, his faith will fail, and the prowling beasts below will tear him limb from limb. He does not know that underneath him are the everlasting arms. He does not recognize the many times those arms have lifted him up, and His Father has whispered, “Your faith shall not fail.”
One day, the angel of death came calling, first at Sally’s house, and then at Stevie’s.
Sally lay on a clean white sheet under a flowered coverlet. Her family were ringed around her bedside absorbing her final blessings—a word of hope and confidence for each one. At last she said, “I think I’ll be going now,” and she closed her eyes. When she opened them again, it seemed that her bed had become an open boat garlanded with blossoms and guided by a shining being across the wide river of death. On the other shore glorious angels greeted her with shouts of joy and conducted her to the throne room of the King of kings.
“Welcome to My home. It is good to have you here, my child,” He said. Awestruck by His beauty, Sally said nothing.
“You have served me long and diligently, Sally. My angels will conduct you to a changing room. There you will find your new garments and the accessories, which are your reward. Do not tarry long because someone you know will be arriving shortly.”
A few minutes later, Sally reappeared, robed in white with a golden circlet around her forehead. Jewels sparkled in her in her hair and on her crown. Her robe was trimmed with golden braid. Sapphire earrings and a matching sapphire necklace set off her blue eyes to perfection. She was very pretty. She knew it, and she was very pleased.
As she stepped out of the changing room, she followed the watching eyes of the assembled heavenly beings. There, up in the air, a long way off flew a shining angel carrying a wriggling, flopping bundle. What was it?
The bundle was Stevie. On the last day of his earthly life, Stevie felt himself inexorably slipping down his grapevine. The hungry beasts were growling below, but he no longer had the strength to struggle back up out of their reach. He wailed. He cried. He begged for mercy, “Pease, Lord, just one more day, just one more hour.” Then he came to the end, and he fell. The lion looked up and opened his mouth in greedy anticipation, but just then a strong hand latched on to the back of Stevie’s nightshirt and bore him off into the heavens.
After a few seconds, Stevie gathered up enough breath and enough courage to look back over his shoulder. The shining face of the angel was too bright for him to bear, so he looked away, back down toward the rapidly receding earth. “Who are you?” he managed to croak.
“I am the angel of death.”
“I thought you were supposed to be dark, ugly, and holding a sharp sickle,” said Stevie.
“I appear in that guise to some people, but never to the beloved ones. Here we are. You are home.”
With that, the angel swooped past the gates, towers, and walls and deposited Stevie on the floor in front of the King’s throne. He landed on his hands and knees with an awkward thump. “Stupid Stevie,” thought Sally. “He can’t even enter heaven in a proper fashion.”
After Stevie had managed to scramble to his feet, the King said, “Welcome. It is very good to have you here, my child.”
“Am I... am I actually in heaven? Are you going to let me stay?”
“Yes, indeed. You belong to Me. This is My home, and where I am, there you are to stay for all eternity.”
“But I have been so bad. I’ve made a mess of my life. I haven’t done anything for You, as Sally has. She deserves to be here, but I don’t.”
“No one deserves to be here, My child. I have forgiven all your past because you believed that I died for sinners and rose again. I was your only hope and you clung to me. Many times when you were about to fall into the lion’s mouth I lifted you up. I kept you, and I have brought you home.”
Stevie’s eyes shone with adoration and wonder. “You are amazing, Lord! I love You. I love You. I love You.”
At that moment, there was such an explosion of light that Sally had to close her eyes. When she opened them again she saw Stevie, but what a change had come over him! He was robed in a white so brilliant that she could hardly bear to look at him. He had not a single reward of gold or gem, but he was standing much nearer the throne than she. Sally looked down at her own gown. It was still white, but his shone like the sun.
She looked up at her Lord, and He answered the question in her face that she dared not utter.
“Did you not know that closeness to Me in heaven depends not on what you have accomplished, but on how much you love Me? Some have done great deeds out of a small love, and they shall receive a small reward. Others have done small deeds, according to their ability, out of a great love, and they shall receive a great reward.
“The great deed of some exceedingly weak ones is that they kept clinging with their feeble faith to Me. When at last they come into My presence and see how I have upheld them, their hearts fairly burst with love. He who is forgiven little loves little. He who is forgiven much loves much. So Stevie is here close to Me.”
“Oh, my Lord,” cried Sally. “In my heart I have despised this one that you love, and with my mouth I have made many a snide remark to my friends about this glorious son of Yours. I even called him ‘Stupid Stevie’ when the angel dropped him down before Your throne. I never saw the wickedness of my heart as I see it now. Can you ever forgive me? Can Stevie ever forgive me?”
Sally bowed her head and tears began to fall in a little pool at her feet. God’s shining son, Stevie, turned around, came toward Sally, and put an arm around her shoulders. “Of course, I forgive you Sally. I have always admired you. I used to think you were wonderful, and I still do.”
Suddenly, a blinding light flashed out from Him who sat on the throne. Sally closed her eyes briefly. When she opened them again, she and Stevie were standing side by side close to the throne. She looked down at her gown and saw that it was gleaming white, as bright as the sun.
And so the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.