I happened to be in England just after Queen Elizabeth died. The trip—arranged two months ago—was set up to visit friends. Yet it felt like a small providence to be in London at the time of her funeral. As I wrote here a few years ago, I once met her—for all of eight seconds—and that brief meeting made an impression.
About that meeting. On March 24, 1999, I was one of about twenty students standing by a walkway inside the London House quadrangle as she attended a reception held in her honor. As a patron of the William Goodenough Trust, she came by for brief visits twice during her reign. The Trust owns London House and was set up before WWII to host University of London postgraduate students. She visited to express her support.
London House and other Goodenough buildings were meant to be university housing for the children of British Empire administrators. But when the war ended, so did the Empire. And, with that, students from the former Imperial colonies were next in line. Including Americans. I was able to stay there for two years during my doctoral studies. I later returned a number of times for short research visits, and in 1999 one of my trips overlapped with the Queen’s visit. So, a self-selected group—whoever happened to be curious—came to watch, standing alongside a walkway as she came past with her retinue. Much to our surprise, she paused, turned, and treated us as if we were a receiving line! She asked each of us, in turn, where we were from. It was a huge surprise—an unscheduled kindness—before she continued on to the reception hall.
What caught my attention—and what I wrote about before—was how that brief eye-contact and some exchanged words made her into a real person for me. It was different than seeing her at a distance or reading about her. Now I had a distinct impression: she was a kind but reserved older woman who reminded me of my mother—of nearly the same age and stature. Yet my mom was warmer. This wasn’t a critical thought, just a recognition that family bonds are unique.
Afterwards I reflected on another even greater meeting, one that carried vastly larger force than my eight-seconds in London. Years before I met Jesus on a hillside in Montana. A meeting with decisive impact that birthed a relationship that remains active—and still shapes me—until today. In time I realized how these two meetings held something in common: the discovery of a real “person” on the other side of my meeting. The Queen, of course, didn’t retain the smallest memory of meeting me after she moved on, but Jesus remains in close and constant contact.
Let me press this. When I met Jesus, he moved from the odd status of a Christian icon floating in the misty realm of cultural religion. In 1964 he became real. He was suddenly “there” as I was reading the Sermon on the Mount. Before that he was an idealized, unreal image I felt obliged to claim as my Lord. But honestly, he was mainly an idea imposed on me by our family heritage. Like the Queen was to me before I made eye contact with her, yet even less real.
Let’s move ahead, then, with both my mother and Queen Elizabeth. My mother died in 2015. I was there by the bed with my siblings and stepdad for her final two hours. She was sleeping, almost gone, but in the last hour before she died, she opened her eyes as if she was seeing someone above the bed. She began to speak quietly—we couldn’t catch what she was saying—with pauses, as if she was also listening. And then she was gone. I had the distinct impression then—and still do—that she was looking into eternity. It was stretching, puzzling, and powerful.
When Queen Elizabeth died she had family with her. What I can’t help but wonder, is how her passing took place. It seems that she had a clear and firm faith in Jesus as her Lord. Let me offer a segment of her final Christmas speech of 2021.
“It is this simplicity of the Christmas story that makes it so universally appealing: simple happenings that formed the starting point of the life of Jesus – a man whose teachings have been handed down from generation to generation, and have been the bedrock of my faith.”
My British Christian friends share a consensus that she knew and loved Jesus as her Lord. And with that in view I find myself reflecting more and more on the “Presence” who is truly “there” in the Bible words the Queen also recognized. And it sets up the biggest of all questions that we face at the end of life. What’s next?
The answer is Jesus, who by his Spirit, will bring us to his Father to share in the “glory he prepared beforehand” for us because he loves us. The key, of course, is that we need to meet him first. It changes everything.