We give and take advice on a daily basis. Yet seldom do you give advice to someone 200 years in advance. But when James Burns in Ireland wrote to his son James in America in 1796, I felt he was speaking to me today.

He wrote: “Dear Son, Think that this world is not your home, but that one day you must enter another where you must abide forever.”

I recast my ancestor’s advice into more tangible terms, picturing myself standing in front of two houses. I would live in the one house for five years and then the second one for ten thousand years. I have a tool box in hand and must decide which house should receive the most attention.

“The second house,” you’d say, “since you’ll be there so much longer.” Like forever? “Yes, the father is referring to eternity, to eternal life.”

But I was still ill at ease with my analogy. The five years in the first house was immediate, a virtual certainty, whereas occupancy of the second house was tinged with all sorts of uncertainty. Would I be wearing white robes with wings? Would I even get there?

My casual reading of our old family letters had become a deeper dive into theology, prophecy, and reality than intended. My two-house analogy was too simple. Thus the first house might be seen as within the second house, and there was both a physical and a spiritual life to consider as well as two houses. Could the lives — or the houses — be separated?

I went on to a letter the son had written in reply. He wrote: “Dear father & mother, I hope, with the assistance of Divine Providence, that I shall be able to live near your advice, and it shall be my sincere prayer that we all shall meet in the mansions of never-ending felicity never again to be separated.”

The son’s painting a picture of heaven is biblical, Jesus telling his disciples, “In my father’s house are many mansions … I go to prepare a place for you.” James was envisioning a natural progression of family members to these celestial homes, viz., first his parents, then he and his wife, and lastly their two children. But we do not know the future. It was his two children, ages 1 and 3, who died less than a year later.

How do bereaved parents cope with such tragedies as the deaths of their children?  An uncle back in Ireland, steeped in the stern and stoic Calvinism of their Scottish ancestors, wrote James and wife Elizabeth. 

“I am sorry to hear of the deaths of your two children. But still I hope you are in the way of your duty, that is, to submit to God’s will and to be thankful for every dispensation of his providence which he is pleased to send your way, that is to say, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord.”

I was taken back to my analogy, standing in front of two houses, one here and one holy, both needing work and with the father’s advice to his son still ringing in my ears. “Think that this world is not your home, but that one day you must enter another where you must abide forever.”

I am not very handy with tools, virtually helpless, a fact to which my wife will willingly attest. So if someone asks me what I’m planning to do today, I might reply, “Well, I think I’ll be working on my house.” This is the house that needs the most work, the one where I hope to be for a long, long time. 

I grew up in a time when faith, family, and freedom were the pillars of our nation and our culture. Times have changed. Oh, we had our crime, wars, and bad behavior, but still there was a national sense of being centered on love of country and the Golden Rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and a certain wholesomeness that Billy Graham and prominent priests and rabbis represented. 

Having watched Ken Burns’ recent history of country music, I have something else ringing in my ears. “Give me that old-time religion, give me that old-time religion, it’s good enough for me.”

James F. Burns is a retired professor at the University of Florida.