When my senses finally resurfaced, I thought I could hear distant laughter. I was lying face down on something soft. As I opened my eyes I was startled by an octopus-like creature swimming under me. Thankfully, I felt dry, though I did not understand how that was possible.|
What’s going on? Where am I now? As relieved as I was to be away from that vile angel, I was annoyed at having to puzzle over what should be the most basic of questions. Never before had I regarded it as a blessing just to know from one moment to the next what planet I am on.
Will life ever be normal again? I don’t like to boast but in my humble opinion complaining is one art I believe I have mastered.
As I grew more aware of my surroundings, I discovered I was on a floor that was surprisingly comfortable to lie on. It was made of a strange substance that was somehow less visible than glass – perhaps because it was non-reflective – but as soft and warm as a mattress. It felt spongy, and yet when I depressed it, there was no shadow, nor any distortion when I looked through it. The seemingly endless floor covered an equally vast aquarium, filled with fish, water plants and all sorts of sea creatures. The depth varied greatly. In the shallower parts I could see such things as shells, starfish, sea urchins. These parts fell away to deeper areas, sometimes plunging to great depths, and yet even in the deepest parts I could see clearly all the way to the bottom. I was unsure whether this was solely because of the clarity of the water or whether there was some light source on the bottom.
The mystery above me was just as captivating. I could not decide whether it was a sky or an exceedingly high ceiling. The place was brightly lit, like that celestial palace I had visited, yet what was above me looked like a cloudless, moonless night far from any light pollution. But the stars – if that is what they were – were all sorts of exotic colors. The blackness between what I thought could be stars suggested not much light was coming from above, adding to my suspicion that there might be a light source at the bottom of the aquarium.
Wherever I looked, breathtaking beauty engulfed me. As my understanding of how the Almighty’s work is testimony to his glory kept soaring higher than ever, however, so did my grief about the planet of my birth. The best earth has to offer mirrors the beauty and majesty and perfection of God little better than the brass mirrors of Bible times enabled a person to see one’s image.
My heart felt ready to burst with love for the Creator and Sustainer of every galaxy, every atom, every creature. “God, you’re magnificent!” I shouted at the top of my lungs. What’s happening to me? I’m becoming worse than those fanatics I despise back on earth. Why can’t I pull myself together and act with dignity and reverence?
Then, for some reason, my eyes locked on to a very ordinary-looking strand of seaweed. I felt I wanted to hug it!
“You’ve got chopped liver for brains!” I told myself out loud, as I struggled to control myself. Yet my folly only grew worse. Such powerful feelings percolated from deep within me that to my amazement I found myself babbling as if I were a cherry short of a fruitcake. “How could I not love you, sweet seaweed, work of my dear Father’s hands,” I heard myself say. “What a masterpiece you are; a piece of the Master’s skill; a finite expression of the infinite Mind; revelation of the divine genius of Source of all life, who gives all things to all.” I stared at that seaweed as if I had fallen in love. “Oh, sweet glimmer of the glory of God; faithfully transmitting a fragment of the majesty of the Creator! If only I were as faithful as you in fulfilling my divine purpose.”
I spoke so eloquently and effortlessly I was almost as amazed as when words gushed from my mouth when singing that song in – wherever it was. If on earth I had had such spontaneity when romancing women, my life might have been so different. Yet here I was, at last using my mouth instead of my pen, and the object of my affection was a bit of seaweed!
Eventually, the sound of laughter broke into my consciousness again. Although most of the floor was that soft, transparent material, scattered here and there were stands of palm trees on white patches, which at this distance I could only presume to be beaches. It was from one of these areas that the laughter seemed to be coming. I thought I knew enough to recognize it as angelic giggling. Far in the distance I believed I could make out what looked like two angels, rolling on the floor in fits of laughter. I suspected that they were a long way off, but in a world where the clarity of the light/atmosphere seemed superior to earth’s, I lacked confidence in such judgments. And if they were as distant as I supposed, sound must act differently here.
I tried to head off in their direction, keen to find out what was happening. At least that is what I told myself. I think my greater motivation was the hope that the distraction would help me pull myself together emotionally before I lost my mind. It was almost terrifying to realize I had just spoken to seaweed!
Moving was disconcerting at first. It was like walking in mid-air. The surface was quite invisible. At first I found myself wanting to step down hollows, or leap from high point to high point, all of which were actually below the surface and could be safely ignored. Soon I got used to ignoring what was below my feet. I learned to trust that the surface was perfectly flat. There was nothing to trip over or fall into and no inclines or uneven sections.
I had expected walking on the spongy floor to be as awkward as trying to walk on a mattress. Instead, it was a pleasure to walk on. In fact, it felt so good that I broke into a run. And then I was even more surprised. To call it running does no justice to what happened. At first, I sort of bounced along, as the springy floor propelled me forward. As my skill level increased it turned more into a bob than a bounce. I continued to adjust my movements and they grew still more graceful. ‘Bounded’ is perhaps the best way to describe the unearthly way I powered ahead with exhilarating ease and speed. Never before had I experienced such effortless movement.
The air seemed so pure and rich. It was a joy to breathe deeply. For the sheer invigoration, I chose to shoot across the surface as fast as I could go.
The image might not quite fit reality but I imagined myself as a skillfully thrown stone skipping and skimming over the surface of a lake. Perhaps it was thinking of my pebble-throwing childhood that caused me to recall a schoolteacher telling my class how immature we were for running everywhere, rather than walking. To me as a ten-year-old, spontaneously running felt so normal that the teacher’s words made no more sense than being told I should breathe less.
Now I found myself a kid again, with energy and an enthusiasm for running I had thought I had lost forever.
Whoever had been giggling turned out to be ridiculously farther away than I would ever have guessed. And I did not mind a bit. In fact, I decided to zig-zag off course at breakneck speed; deliberately prolonging the journey just for the heaven of it. (I am unsure of the accuracy of that last expression but it was certainly closer to heaven than anything I have known on earth.)
There was a hole in my plan, however. What lived below the surface was too fascinating. I felt repeatedly compelled to stop in my tracks. (Actually, I looked behind and was relieved to discover that despite sinking deep into that soft material, it fully rebounded so that I was not spoiling anything by leaving tracks. My only disappointment was that it would have been fascinating to have retraced my steps to a point where I had been zipping along at full speed and used the tracks to measure how far apart the steps were. Of course, I had no tape measure but I could still have approximated it. I think the distance between steps would have been impressive. Anyhow, I needed to keep stopping (or, more accurately, coming to a screeching halt) because a particularly beautiful coral, or some other marvel just had to be admired.
Mind you, when powering along this surface, stopping proved somewhat problematical. It turned out to be an art that took several attempts to perfect, but falling onto this soft surface was – I guess I shouldn’t be admitting this – rather fun.
On one of my many stops I noticed a shell that was so gorgeous that, without thinking, I reached down to pick it up for a closer inspection. To my astonishment my hand slipped through the substance I had been kneeling on, allowing me to enter blood-warm water. I froze in shock upon realizing what had happened. Then, deciding I might as well complete the act, I picked up the shell. After delicately examining it I attempted to reverse the process and return the shell. It worked without a hitch but not without my awe at the amazing properties of this transparent layer that not only supported me but propelled me and even allowed me to penetrate it whenever I wanted.
There was no way I was going to surrender to the notion that this material let me do whatever I wanted because it read my mind. The phenomenon vaguely reminded me of something but I could not recall what. (Since returning to twenty-first century earth, I have on occasions scratched my head over what it reminded me of. Perhaps it was just the way a stone can both skip over water and sink into it. It might, however, have been my vague awareness of non-Newtonian fluids that act like a solid when impacted.)
As I bounded along, relishing this seemingly endless aquarium, the words “sea of glass” popped into my head. Had the author of Revelation been referring to this place when he used that expression? I thought it most unlikely but I felt unable to dismiss the notion entirely. I found myself continually adding to my ever-increasing list of unanswered questions.
Each time I paused to delight in yet another wonder, my earlier reaction to that strand of seaweed seemed less and less ridiculous. I recalled how in that forest I had felt connected to all of creation.
Now that I am back on earth, writing this after having months to try to come to terms with it all, it doesn’t seem that the union I sensed back then with nature has changed me much, other than lifting my spirits whenever I recall the event. I am under no illusion of having some life-changing truth to share, but I am definitely enjoying reliving the memory of what I sensed there and have never felt since.
My best attempt at coming to terms with what I experienced is that through Christ, my very humanity connected me with both the physical and the spiritual world. On one side, I felt a oneness – an exquisite harmony – with all of creation. And on the other side – and in an even higher sense – I felt a spiritual oneness with the infinite Lord. It was as though I was divinely ordained to be the cherished bridge between the two. All of this flowed from my Redeemer and was powered by love that flooded everything within and without with indescribable joy and peace.
As a husband and wife are distinct personalities and yet are mysteriously one, so I felt a oneness with all of creation; a oneness that made me whole, and yet a oneness in which my uniqueness was valued. There was no sense in which it diminished me. It empowered me and made me more alive.
In the forest I was a part of everything there and they were all a part of me. We completed each other, without my individuality being violated. I felt special. The exhilarating assurance flooded my being that I had a unique contribution to make to the glory of God. I seemed a vital jigsaw piece that slotted precisely into the perfection of creation. And the same seemed true for everything else in that world. I felt I belonged there, in a way that I never known on the planet I had always considered to be home.
Don’t feel left out: there is nothing exclusive about any aspect of my relationship with Christ. At the time, I was too caught up in the moment for my thoughts to drift to other people but anything I experienced would surely apply to all of redeemed humanity, had they been there.
In this place, nature felt like an extension of myself, without it being some pantheistic delusion. Whatever happened, it was authentically Christian and hinged on my spiritual union with Christ. All of the creation I was immersed in seemed almost as much a part of me as my body. And yet, because it remained fascinatingly distinct and different from me, I could delight in it without falling into vanity or self-obsession.
What for me made nature’s value soar even higher was that it seemed in one sense mine but in another sense God’s. It was a reflection both of my Lord’s glory as creator and of his glory as a lover, because it was not only the work of his hands but his precious gift to me.
I felt towards nature like a starry-eyed lover delighting in her engagement ring; not because of its material value but because love endowed it with infinite sentimental value, making it priceless. And yet nature was even more thrilling because it was living and not some inanimate object. Moreover, nature is more than something God paid for and more than something he carefully selected as an expression of his undying love; it is something he has fashioned. Even rocks are not just his gift but his works of art, and were created not only by the greatest artist in the universe but by our Lover. They were not just the product of his genius but the outpouring of his love for me.
It was tragically different on earth, but in that forest I had felt as if even to rip out a blade of grass would somehow diminish me. It was partly as a king’s power and glory would be reduced if he lost a portion of his kingdom.
The words, “animal kingdom” flashed into my mind. I was familiar with the term, of course, but I had never before considered that every kingdom has a king or queen. To whom are all earth’s animals willing subjects? Adam, I recalled, had been granted divine authority over everything living on earth, but nature stopped peacefully submitting to him when he stopped submitting to God, the ultimate authority. Having lost his divine authority, he could only try to rule by brute force – quite unlike the perfect Man, Jesus, who ruled by merely speaking to a storm or simply deciding to ride an unbroken donkey or walk on water.
But if in any sense I felt a king, it was not as if I had any need or desire to lord it over my subjects. I did not feel toward nature like a conqueror or an owner but like a proud father whose delight is not to exploit but to empower. Welling from within was no desire to dominate but to nurture, guide and tenderly protect.
If I were a king, it was one whose glory is not only diminished by the loss of a single plant but by the slightest oppression of one of his subjects. Rather than it be an ego trip, it seemed the loss of a single blade of grass or a handful of dirt would be like what a basketball player would suffer if a member of his team were injured in the middle of a key game.
I felt a oneness of purpose with everything in existence, because all exist to display the glory of the infinite God.
Of course, my contribution to the glory of God was more significant than that of grass, but I sensed that God’s intellect is so stupendous that he is personally and lovingly concerned for the minutest thing. As beholding the beauty of God’s handiwork had somehow tenderized my own heart, it seemed I was tuning in to a tenderness in God’s heart – a tenderness that my own hardness of heart had previously blocked from my consciousness. I wonder if until then I had shrunk from truly knowing God, for fear that he would turn out to be cold and harsh. As an awareness of God’s tenderness and goodness grew within me I became overawed by how infinitely worthy God is of love and thanks and adoration and perfection. This grew so strong that I recoiled at the thought of him being robbed of the tiniest contribution to his glory, even if it be just a blade of grass.
Finally, my thoughts began to meander to other people. In that special forest, it seemed that everything belonged. Everything had a role to play. And if I felt that way about trees and rocks and animals, how inconceivably intense would my feelings be in a world filled with redeemed and perfected humanity? Would these people truly be the crown of creation, exalted even above angels?
My spirit somehow caught the faintest glimpse of what it would be like to be simultaneously in love with multiplied millions of people, each of whom I found stunningly beautiful, fascinating and exciting, and all of whom were equally in love with me. In an instant I had insight into the thrill of an eternity reveling in perhaps a billion never-ending relationships, each of which was more permanent, satisfying, uplifting and conflict-free than the best marriage ever known on earth. The intimacy was not sexual, but somehow even more wondrous. In this flash of awareness I seemed transported to a place where everyone saw me as witty and fun to be with. I was valued and famous and irreplaceable. They adored me in the most passionate, but God-honoring sense. And the feeling was mutual.
My mind tumbled back to that Endless Palace and how a terrifyingly sterile empty vastness quickly morphed into a cozy building solely because of the presence of all those heavenly beings. At the time I had thought of Christians being referred to as living stones and pillars but it had not seemed relevant because they were nonhuman. Now I remembered that the Word of God calls Christ the door and the church’s cornerstone. I had not even been viewing the church and yet that living palace, combined with these scriptures, somehow affirmed to me that the church’s glory truly is every one of its people.
I sensed a world in which everyone was a hero, a megastar and highly desirable in everyone else’s eyes. I, and everyone else, felt the center of attention. Jealously was impossible because everyone’s happiness was wrapped up in everyone else’s happiness. No one could be honored without everyone else being so happy for that person that it felt to them all as if they themselves had been honored. The intensity of love, the ease of communication, the feeling of oneness and the appreciation of each person’s uniqueness soared beyond anything I had ever imagined.
In what seemed like an explosion of revelation, I saw how so much changes when that which is perfect arrives. A caterpillar might be unable to imagine any greater pleasure than eating leaves. When it sprouts wings and tastes nectar, however, it never bothers to go back to eating leaves. Likewise, when we gain our new bodies, sex will be superseded by higher pleasures. As toys are the appropriate gift of a loving parent to a baby, marital relations are a beautiful gift from God. Nevertheless, babies grow up, and followers of Christ eventually burst through mortality into eternal pleasures. We will then miss earth’s highlights no more than we miss the teddy bear and the make-believe money of our childhood. What is necessary in a world of physical birth and death has no function in this place of perfection. Just as locks would be out of place in a world of perfect love, so would any exclusive relationship between people. As people cannot share secrets in a world where everyone already knows everything, so marriage could not exist in this world – not, of course, because marriage is not of God, but simply because that which is perfect has come.
I apologize for my laborious attempt to convey something precious to me that was seeded into my mind in almost an instant. It was comparable to a panoramic view being flashed on a screen. In seconds you can absorb what takes so much longer to describe to anyone who cannot see the screen, and even after all those words, the result is not as impacting as seeing it for yourself. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to squander a few more words in an attempt to transport you to the understanding I was somehow granted.
My new feelings towards nonhuman creation had been indescribably wonderful, and yet I somehow knew that my delight in redeemed humanity would be many times beyond what just moments before had seemed the ultimate experience.
Then, just when it seemed impossible for anything to surpass what I was sensing, I somehow glimpsed love, fulfillment and never-ending excitement that were exceedingly higher still – knowing God on a level beyond my current comprehension.
Suddenly I understood why Scripture says no one has ever seen God and lived, even though other passages refer to people seeing God. It’s like my claim to have seen earth’s sun when I’m referring merely to the briefest glimpse from – get this – 93 million miles away, and even then it was far too blinding for me to properly take in what I was seeing. As my eyes would burn out long before I could gaze close up upon the sun’s full splendor, so my brain would fry long before I could truly behold God’s beauty. No wonder I almost died in that endless Palace, trying to contain the ecstasy of the mere reflected glory of God. I would need an astoundingly superior body to have any hope of containing the excitement of truly knowing God, rather than being knocked senseless by a millisecond burst of his reflected glory from a million miles away. I was no longer surprised that Scripture says Daniel “was exhausted and lay sick for days” after a mere vision of symbols and an angel.
How can anyone describe something a million times better than the greatest earthly experience? All I can do is point, dumbstruck, at God – the warmest, most fascinating, most exciting Person in all existence. It is to be expected that intimacy with God should far surpass anything else, since he is the beautiful Mind behind all the other wonders. He is the inexhaustible Source of all love and goodness; the perfect and infinite Designer and Maker of every good thing anyone has ever enjoyed.
A mysterious certainty gripped my heart that not only is God a person, he is exceedingly more personal than we are, and with far deeper feelings and emotions. Alongside him, we are the cold, impersonal ones. God is as superior to us in intelligence, creativity and personality, as we are superior to a worm in each of those dimensions. Our current difficulty is in having the courage to get close enough to God to discover how thrillingly personal and lovable he is.
Most of us would shrink from getting close to certain people who we feel are too cultured or beautiful or famous or rich or intelligent to want our friendship. If we feel this way about mere humans who, by one or two measures might be marginally superior to us, it’s no wonder we shrink from God who is in every way infinitely superior to us.
Even those of us who know that God accepts us as his children, still starve ourselves of many thrilling encounters with God because, deep down, we can’t believe someone so superior would genuinely want to be best friends with us. This drives us to keep aloof from God, breaking his heart in the process. Then we who have kept ourselves somewhat cold and distant from God have the audacity to think it is he, not us, who is cold and aloof. In reality, God is so passionate about us that he makes it his business to familiarize himself with every hair on our head.
We rob ourselves of so much of the ultimate experience – never-ending intimacy with the most delightfully uplifting Person in the universe – because we cannot believe God truly wants it. That is why faith is so crucial.
Many of us find it almost impossible to believe that God is virtually infatuated with us but this is because we misunderstand what we are asked to believe. We are not expected to believe that we are worthy of God’s love. That would be ridiculous. We need believe only that the very nature of the One who said “love your enemies” is to love emphatically those whom everyone else considers undesirable. We are not required to delude ourselves into believing we are lovable, but merely to believe that the God of infinite love far exceeds our ability to be head-over-heels in love with someone others finds unlovable. The Almighty is as superior to us in his ability to love as he is superior in every other desirable way.
Neither are we asked to believe that God’s love turns him into a crazed maniac who jettisons his commitment to truth, holiness and perfect justice by turning a blind eye to our sins. Instead, he is the holy Lord whose love drives him to remove our sins by executing justice for us on the cross and bestowing upon us divine holiness and power over sin.
It is not that God loves us because we are desirable but that since the God of the impossible loves us, he is able to transform us into people who are desirable. The Eternal Master sees in us not only who we are but who we will be when he completes his masterpiece.
It somehow seemed as clear to me as the mysterious substance under my feet, that I was trusting to keep me from drowning, that once we spiritually meld ourselves to God through Jesus, there is no way that God’s superiority keeps us from enjoying him. On the contrary, it makes the relationship breathtakingly superior to any relationship we could ever have.
Men differ from women and yet not only is that difference not insurmountable, it adds a whole dimension to marriage. Likewise, we differ from God, but that just adds wonder and excitement to our union with him. On the other hand, men and women are so alike that the similarity also makes marriage special. And we are so much like God. Not only are we in his image, we were literally made for intimacy with him. When God has completed his work of recreating us, restoring us to the splendor of his original intentions by removing from us all of sin’s hideous defects and deformities, the mix of similarities and differences between God and us will be exquisite. No other companionship or union in the universe can equal it.
Weirdly, I immediately began receiving revelation about receiving revelation. It hit me that nothing we receive from God is ever deserved – not even God rewarding our faithfulness. Out of the vastness of his love, he keeps pouring out to us, even though none of us ever reach the point of deserving or earning anything other than hell. Our never-ending dependence upon God’s generosity, however, does not mean we never have a role to play in receiving.
The spiritual insights God was now graciously flowing into me were traveling along the route cut into my mind by years of regular Bible study. In isolation, Bible study will never suffice. I pray I never need more dramatic proof of that than my dismal failure when first encountering those ‘sparklers’. To be merely hearers of the Word will only increase our condemnation; we must be doers of the Word. But we cannot be doers without first being hearers.
I thought of the Apostle Paul whose proud knowledge of Scripture led him to conclude that Christianity was a dangerous heresy that must be violently wiped from the planet. In the words of the apostle, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” The last thing we need is to be so inflated by pride in our Bible knowledge that we lose sight of the two greatest commandments: to love God with everything we have and to love others as ourselves. Despite his bad start, however, almost immediately after his conversion, Paul was proving to the Jews in Damascus that Jesus is the Messiah. This was possible only by Paul drawing upon his vast knowledge of relevant scriptures. My study – like Paul’s – was like someone miserly saving his every cent. Once he discovers the error of his ways, that money is still in his bank account, ready to be spent in ways that truly glorify God.
Like someone dying of thirst in a desert, have you drunk in every word dropping from the lips of the long-awaited Messiah, the eternal Son of God, the Living Word – the one who not merely claimed to be the Truth but proved it by living what he preached like no one ever has, then selflessly sacrificing his life for his enemies and rising to life again? Like a scrooge gathering diamonds, have you treasured every word uttered by its Savior, the one through whom and for whom all things exist, who 1 Corinthians calls “the power of God and the wisdom of God”, who is the God of all gods, the King of all kings and the Lord of all lords? Like the most passionate art connoisseur examining the greatest masterpiece in the universe, have you studied every word from the One who sustains all things by his word and at whose name every knee must bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth? If you have, you will know how much Christ, the Ultimate Revelation of God, revered Scripture. His words were peppered with “It is written,” and he was forever saying such things as “Scripture cannot be broken,” “the Scriptures . . . testify of me,” “You are in error, knowing neither the Scriptures, nor the power of God,” “I have not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfill them,” and referring to a Psalm as “David, speaking by the Spirit.”
Furthermore, near the end of his earthly ministry, Jesus told his disciples, “I have many more things to tell you, but you cannot bear them now. When, however, the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. For he will not speak on his own, but will speak only what he hears. And he will declare to you the things that are to come.” So, despite his wonderful teaching, Jesus insisted there were further spiritual truths that he had left unspoken until he fulfilled his promise to reveal it to the disciples through his Spirit, after Pentecost. Combine this with Jesus announcing that the disciples were his chosen ones to make more disciples, build the church and teach others. Their teachings form the rest of the New Testament. So my reverence for Jesus compels me to conclude that from Genesis to Revelation, the entire Bible is of critical importance. There is no source of truth available to any of us that is nearly as valuable.
Besides prayer, I believe the greatest insight into the meaning of any part of the Bible is found in the other parts of the Bible that deal with the same topic, figure of speech, historical period, or whatever. For most of my life, this conviction has driven me to invest much time connecting in my mind scriptures with other scriptures. I read each book of the Bible from beginning to end, but throughout the process I am thinking This verse reminds me of that verse and that verse in other parts of the Bible. Now, after multiplied years of this, any scripture detonates within me a chain reaction of links to other scriptures. It has become a mental habit; an investment that keeps on paying rich dividends.
This particular approach to Bible study has served me well but I presume another way might be equally effective for someone else. The critical factor in receiving divine revelation is not the method but the diligence, faithfulness, humility and passion with which one pours one’s life into studying the Word of God. This gives the Author of the principle of sowing and reaping, something to work with.
My mind glided to the Gospel of John where Jesus told his disciples that the promised Holy Spirit would bring to their memory what Jesus had taught them. I was gripped by the order of events: first comes disciplined learning from Jesus and, sometime later, the Spirit-inspired activation of what has been learned. This prompted my memory of Peter’s famous Spirit-filled sermon on the Day of Pentecost. For years I had presumed that his message was entirely supernatural. Then I discovered it was almost entirely Old Testament quotes that Peter must have memorized, laced with a few things he had learnt from Jesus after three intensive years under his teaching.
We can have key, life-changing moments when jigsaw pieces dramatically fit together but it seems that God first expects us to gather the pieces through diligent study.
As the thought hardened of enjoying eternity with a perfect God and people he has restored to perfection, it was more than that clear stuff under my feet that was putting a spring in my step as I bounded toward the celestial creatures.