Awareness of my new circumstances was slowly seeping into my consciousness. I groggily opened my eyes, and sensed it was neither in the palace nor the forest. Everything had an inferior but familiar look and feel to it. I was partly excited, partly disappointed at the possibility of being back on earth. Added to the mix was a twinge of anxiety and curiosity over not recognizing my surroundings.
Then I noticed my sleeve and in shock quickly examined the rest of me. I felt violated. Someone had completely undressed me, removing every trace of clothing, and put weird clothes on me. My wallet was gone.|
Theft, violation and cruelty all had a cold, familiar feel to them.
Had I had my wallet since leaving earth? I had been vaguely aware that I must have left my cell phone behind but there are things one does not keep reaching for when no longer on earth. Suddenly I craved them as reminders of what I used to regard as normality. In fact, for a moment, I ached for them as pathetically as a little child wanting his teddy.
I looked in vain for my watch and then on my bare wrist I noticed my suntan.
How did I get so brown? Just how big a hole is there in my memory? Could I have been living here for years? Then again, if I believed in fairy tales, my change of location, clothing and skin color could have happened in an instant. My mind darted to the book of Acts where Philip suddenly found himself in a different location. What I could recall of the account provided no clues. Then I remembered those bright ‘sparklers’ back – wherever and whenever it was. Had they emitted ultraviolet light and tanned me? If so, why hadn’t I noticed my darker skin when I was in the forest after my first exposure to the ‘sparklers’? There was no white band where my watch used to be. When had I last had my watch?
There was no time to consider all of that. My mind hurtled to more critical matters. Who had done this to me? Why? And – more disturbing still – when?
In the midst of my alarm, I recalled with relief my return visit to that palace. Had my first visit to the palace and then the forest been followed by immediately being dumped in an earth-like planet, my fears would have soared of failing tests and being exiled to lower and lower places.
Not only was I aching to savor the memory of my more recent experiences in the palace, I was itching to begin unraveling their mysteries and thinking through the implications. So many other questions were crowding in, however, and they were far too worrying and demanding not to be given top priority.
I recalled as a kid reading in a magazine about a woman who regained consciousness to find herself dressed somewhat like I was. She had been drugged and kidnapped. The article was about white slavery. In a panic, I looked around. No one was guarding me. Was this my one chance of escape? But escape to where?
I looked around and saw people and housing suggesting I was in some third world village. A remote part of Afghanistan was my wild guess. Thankfully, I could see no guns. It was highly presumptuous but I felt sure I was back on earth. Not only did the people look like humans, everything seemed as dark and grimy as my home planet.
The people had olive complexion and were wearing clothes roughly like those I found myself dressed in. I remembered my suntan. I again asked myself, Have I been living here for years? Belatedly, another possibility collided with my thoughts. Or is this to help me blend in? My mind was just easing into this thought when I began to panic over a possible implication. Does this mean I’ll be here for years?
I stood up and discovered that I felt physically different. Sort of – heavier. Had I become weaker, or was I in the process of readjusting to a change of gravity?
Then I saw him. He was surrounded by people. Everyone’s attention was riveted on him. He looked ordinary, and yet everything about him – voice, gestures, facial expressions – conveyed a powerful and peculiar mix of humility and authority. He had the air of a man who knew exactly where he is going; a man so confident that he had not the slightest need to prove himself to anyone. Like everyone else present, I was captivated by this man.
I strained to hear his every word.
“When someone invites you to a feast, sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but those who humble themselves will be exalted. Many who are first now will be last.”
His lip movements did not correspond with what I was hearing, and yet I still could not take my eyes off him. “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them. But it is not so among you. Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man,” he drew his outstretched hands a little closer to himself, “comes not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
I had moved as close as I could. I wanted to get closer still, but there were just too many people. True, there was a small space to my front left but I decided to give that a miss. The spot was covered with animal manure – from a donkey perhaps? This was not the ideal time to discover I was wearing open sandals. At least no one was staring at me, however.
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you when people hate you for my sake. Leap for joy in that day, because great is your reward in heaven.”
He’s either a superb actor, or this isn’t Afghanistan. In fact . . . The very notion made me sick. If that’s who I think it is, this isn’t even the twenty-first century.
You must think me as sharp as a sausage but every survival instinct within me kept resisting any thought of it being a different era. I recoiled from even contemplating the difficulties of finding my way to somewhere more civilized and then, without so much as a credit card or ID, somehow traveling to my home on the other side of the world. That daunting challenge would be a breeze, however, compared to trying to figure out how to time travel. How could I possibly find my way back not merely to a different country but to a different century?
He continued to speak and I found myself so stirred by his message that my very real concerns began to fall away.
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well-fed now, for you will be hungry.”
I’m not an idiot. He was obviously speaking the words of Jesus – or at least a cut down version of them but this could not be the first century. This must be some form of an outdoor play. Quite good, actually.
“Bless those who curse you. Do good to those who hate you. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that! But love your enemies, and lend to them, expecting nothing back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Give, and it will be given to you. For with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.”
The conviction and passion and intensity with which he spoke so gripped my attention as to leave me almost overpowered. To put on paper what he said is to so drain it of color and life as to be like reading about a sunrise rather than seeing one. But something far more exciting and significant was happening within me than could ever be explained in terms of his voice and body language. It was if my very spirit were being supernaturally illumined. Truths I had thought I knew were suddenly exploding into spiritual life within me. No longer were these theological tenets or moral principles. They were life; they were revelation that seemed almost on par with a discovery that would explain the entire universe. With every word, vital jigsaw pieces were snapping into place. Eternal mysteries were being resolved.
“Sell your possessions and give to the needy,” continued the man. (He was just an amazing actor, wasn’t he? I mean he really couldn’t be . . .) “Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out; an inexhaustible treasure in heaven. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
“I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
A burly man near the front interrupted, “We have left everything to follow you! What then shall we have?”
Certain actors must be interspersed throughout the crowd. Then it struck me: If most of those listening are the audience, how come they are dressed for the part? They must have been supplied with costumes. I’m glad I’m not paying the admission fee.
I looked around at the women. None were wearing makeup. They had not arrived dressed up and simply changed their clothes. To be frank, the crowd smelled as if showering was not high on their priorities.
Is this a movie set? There was not the slightest indicator.
The man who had everyone’s attention smiled at his questioner. “I tell you, when all things are renewed and the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on thrones, judging Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or land for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and eternal life as well.”
“What fantastic teaching!” said someone, “I could listen to it for hours!” I had been so mesmerized by the proceedings that the voice startled me as though I were waking from a dream. There was something familiar about that voice. I looked around and there was Chebon with two other angels. Until then, I had not even noticed them there. No one paid them the slightest attention. It was as if they were invisible to everyone, and yet I could see and hear them as clearly as I could see everyone else.
Chebon laughed unlike anyone I’ve ever heard. “You have been listening for hours! The sun’s going down!”
“Teeeeeoool!” exclaimed the first angel, looking around as if suddenly becoming more aware of his surroundings.
“No one in any universe has lived those words like that Man will,” remarked another extraterrestrial. He was surprisingly chubby by angelic standards. Until seeing him I would not have thought it possible for one person to look both cute and majestic, but he did.
“They are truly living words,” mused Chebon. “They not only bring life, but they fall from the lips of God-become-man, who is the Living Word.”
The implications refused to register with me. Part of me wanted it to be Jesus that I had been hearing but another part recoiled at the possibility of being cut adrift from the only era I have ever known. I would sooner hold red hot metal than hold on to the thought that I had somehow lost contact with the twenty-first century. It was far more sensible to believe I had witnessed the best acting I had ever seen. If the thought of being lost in space is terrifying, I am left with no words to describe the added horror of being lost in time. I was to discover that a mind unable to embrace a terrifyingly unfamiliar reality is capable of peculiar things.
There was a slight pause. Then the chubby nonhuman said, “You know, I think I could put some of those beautiful truths into a song.”
“Teeeeeoool! Let’s hear it!” said the first angel with obvious delight. My appreciation was deepening as to how special music is to these amazing beings.
“It’s only a few lines,” replied ‘Chubby’.
“Oh, come on!” urged Chebon.
“Yes, Kairel!” chimed in the first angel.
Kairel . . . I must remember that name.
“Well . . . okay.”
Kairel stood and suddenly the weirdest contraption appeared in front of him, aligned to his feet, his hands and his mouth. He started blowing into it. Simultaneously, his hands began moving over the instrument as if he were playing a harp, and his feet moved, as if he were operating foot pedals on an organ, only with superhuman agility. He almost looked as if he were dancing. The fact that he was standing added to this impression. Immediately I heard a sound like I had heard in – wherever that place was. It must have been one of heaven’s musical instruments. Somehow I had never noticed any in the palace. I presumed there was just so much else happening that I had missed seeing them.
I should have been wondering what the crowd were doing and why they seemed oblivious to these unearthly beings but there was just too much else screaming for my attention.
The more I looked, the more I was convinced that Kairel was dancing with his musical contraption. It was a dance that produced the most exquisite music. I had already discovered that angels have far more flexible bodies than us. He occasionally knocked his knees together in a form of percussion. He twisted his spine in peculiar ways and this, too, seemed to affect the music.
The instrument was translucent; shimmering with light. The changing colors were neither random, nor simplistically linked to the music. They added another dimension to the music, a little like the way skilled choreography noiselessly adds a new element to music. But the experience gripped my heart far too powerfully for me to subject it to rational analysis. My skin prickled with icy goose bumps. Like a magnet, the music seemed to draw from my innermost being feelings of awe beyond anything I had ever known. Not even my previous exposure to celestial music had prepared me for this.
I cannot say whether this music was superior to what I had heard earlier in that otherworldly place or that forest. Since somehow leaving my own time and world, I had experienced so much that all superlatives have fled from me like con artists exposed by truth. My ability to compare one wonder with another was exhausted. Nevertheless, this particular music had the effect of flooding me with an awareness of how worthy is the majestic Lord of the very best any creature in any universe is capable of offering him.
Before I knew it, I found myself on my face crying out to the Creator of every good thing, “You are worthy! You are worthy! You are worthy! You are worthy!”
I have never been one to grovel and yet here I was with my face in the dirt, acting almost like a worm. To my surprise, there was something peculiarly thrilling about assuming such a humiliating position. I doubt I had ever felt so fulfilled and – despite my posture – so uplifted. In a sense I felt broken and yet I have never felt so whole. I felt like a lover who had previously thought it the height of humiliation to kiss someone’s feet and now finding it the pinnacle of delight. An exhilarating Niagara of adoring love for God was thundering through me, knocking me to the ground. I was on my face not through shame but because love had swept me off my feet.
Love changes everything.
Like a lightning flash illuminating my soul, the realization hit that in contrast to the euphoria of falling in love with a human, I was adoring the Perfect One – the One who could never disappoint. I was captivated by the beauty of the One so vast that for all eternity I will keep gaining new glimpses into the wonders of his uniqueness. Not only will there never be an insight into the Infinite Lord that disappoints, each new discovery will thrill me still further, intensifying my awe.
Whether it was supernatural, or merely psychological, I do not know, but while I was locked into adoration of the Everlasting Lord, time seemed to freeze. It seemed to last for days, maybe years. Eventually, I snapped back to a startled awareness of my surroundings because Kairel, who had previously been blowing into his musical contraption, somehow began to sing into it. I was so shocked by the musical effect that I could not have been more surprised had I heard a piano or a violin speak. He somehow used the instrument he was playing to amplify and modify his voice. The effect was stunningly beautiful. It was as if when he had previously been using the instrument he had merely been humming. Now he added words.
All those who choose
Chebon and the other angel cheered in obvious delight.
“But it’s too short,” said Kairel. “Come on Chebon, you’re good at songs, how about some more verses?”
“Well, let’s see . . .” said Chebon, “Sing your verse again.”
Kairel repeated his song, while Chebon seemed deep in thought. The verse ended, but the music continued. Then Kairel looked to Chebon, who raised his voice and sang.
The nail-pierced Christ
The music continued for a while.
“Chorus” announced Chebon. The music stopped and Chebon sang unaccompanied.
He’ll give his all,
“Thanks Gabe!” said Kairel, “you’ve made the next verse easy.” He began playing his instrument again. Then he sang.
The Son has loved
All three joined in the chorus:
He’ll give his all,
I was enthralled. Their singing made human voices sound like the rasping of a hand saw, and that angelic instrument made earthly instruments seem like industrial machines. Yet somehow, even this beautiful song was no match for the simple dignity and power of the words that had fallen from Jesus’ lips.
I suspected that had I managed to attempt conversing with these terrifyingly superior beings they would continue to treat me as if I did not exist. Anyhow, that is my best excuse I can provide for never pounding a celestial lifeform with any of my innumerable questions, including why they used such a vast variety of names for God the Father and the Son. Whatever their reason, Kairel was about to use a name for God that could hardly have messed me up more had he put my head in a tumble drier.
Kairel began to speak. “The Never-Changing, Ever-Changing One . . .”
That peculiar expression so seized my attention that I didn’t even notice the rest of his sentence. As I grappled with it, I was just beginning to see ways in which the never-ending Lord is never-changing and ways in which he is ever-changing, when something almost nightmarish erupted within me: concepts were somehow seeded wordlessly into my mind. They appeared as seemingly contradictory couplets, each mind-rockingly perplexing, whirling around in my quickly frazzled brain.
If it were purely bewildering I would have concluded I was suffering a mental meltdown but it was also peculiarly exhilarating and associated with heightened mental clarity and yet simultaneously so sobering as to seem to rule out some form of mania.
Suddenly, words the color of a shimmering oil slick appeared in midair. I stared open-mouthed. The characters forming what I presumed to be words were like no human language I have ever encountered. Then the words writhed and dived, twisting and twirling and hurling themselves to the ground as they spun round and round in a giddy, gaudy tangle of squirming language. The sight not only made me nauseous, they melded into meanings that sent me reeling.
I sensed that each concept was encapsulated by a word in another language – perhaps an angelic language – but in our language it is virtually untranslatable. Each concept came with total clarity and yet I find myself unable to convey them in English. Despite a degree of overlap – sometimes as little as a third – attempting English approximations is like trying to fit a foot into a glove. So much is lost in my best attempts at translation that I sweat over whether the result is so crude as to be insulting to the Holy One. I am left utterly frustrated. Reverence pushes me to omit all reference to this experience and yet it had such a profound effect on me that I yearn to pass it on. I don’t know whether I am doing the right thing by attempting this. I am reminded of Paul receiving heavenly things he was not permitted to utter and similarly for John and Daniel (2 Corinthians 12:4; Revelation 10:4; Daniel 8:26; 12:4).
There were so many couplets and the effect was so disconcerting that I could not possibly absorb it all. Many left me so confused that some may have escaped my powers of recollection. Far more disturbing than this, however, is that my best attempt to express each concept in English is so appallingly inadequate that I have waged war with myself over whether I should totally remove it all from this account, lest I be guilty of dishonoring the Perfect One. The words I have had to settle with are hopeless failures at expressing the grandeur, mystery, beauty and desirability of God as the concepts appeared in my mind. Some of my best attempts to share them seem almost blasphemous, and possibly are. I have reluctantly decided to include my crude approximations, just to convey a vague idea of what I experienced. I plead with you to understand, however, that my attempted reconstruction is unreliable and grossly inadequate.
Maybe you should pray about whether you should skip the next paragraph.
The concepts thrust into my mind included things vaguely like: The Tender-Hearted Terror . . . The Submissive Controller . . . The Unknowable Self-Discloser . . . The Never Sleeping, Always Resting One . . . The Lofty Slave . . . The Ever-Present Distant One . . . The All-Knowing Forgetter . . . The Subservient Autocrat . . . The Motherly Father . . . The Warm Aloof One . . . The Intolerant Forgiver . . . The Ferocious Dove . . . The Non-Interfering Meddler . . . The Exalted Groveler . . . The Jubilant Mourner . . . The Supportive Adversary . . . The Starry-Eyed Realist . . . The Gentle Avenger . . . The Victorious Loser . . . Flexible Concrete . . . Ordered Chaos . . . Meticulously Planned Spontaneity . . .The Harmless Executioner . . . The Warm-Hearted Iceberg . . . The Grieving Rejoicer . . . Terrifying Selflessness . . . The Sinner-Loving Sin-Hater . . . The Serious Comedian . . . The Approachable Untouchable . . . The Servant of All who is Lord of all. . . Love-Crazed Wisdom . . . Marshmallow-Centered Granite . . .
I was dumbfounded. The concepts sent swirling inside me were not just flabbergasting; my entire theology was spiraling out of control. Do all those words apply to the Matchless One? Are some even blasphemous? My inability to answer such basic questions was more than unsettling; it was alarming.
Yes, the Bible applies apparently bizarre words to the divine. Note the apparent contradictions in the following samples: the door and the stumbling block, the root and the branch, the rock and the bread, the vine and the vinedresser, the sacrifice and the high priest, the beginning and the end, the lamb and the lion, the lamb and the shepherd, the king of kings and the servant, the author and the word, the judge and the savior, the light who surrounds himself with darkness (that last one sounds so weird that I feel compelled to cite some references: Psalm 18:11; Deuteronomy 4:11; 5:23).
Many words in this list from Scripture are unexpected and at first glance seem demeaning to God but when grouped as virtual opposites, the result is even more disturbing. Nevertheless, when slipped between black leather covers and uttered in reverent tones they somehow lose their power to shock. I wonder how many people would accuse someone of blasphemy for applying these words to God, had the terms not have been preserved in the Bible. For example, had there been no biblical precedent, there is no way I would have dared call the Holy Lord – the most intelligent, life-giving and loving person in the universe – a rock. And if ‘rock’ at least implies durability, this certainly is not true of ‘bread’ or ‘manna’ – terms that Jesus applied to himself even though they are substances renowned for quickly turning stale and then useless. The new list of concepts that spun out of control in my mind, however, flung me out of my comfort zone almost with the force with which I had been expelled from the endless palace.
Even more unnerving than my utter confusion was that each bewildering couplet was like a hail of bullets executing my conceited complacency in assuming I knew the heart of the Infinite One. Everything I thought I knew about God might as well have been smashed by a whirlwind until even the dust of the ruins had been sucked up and flung into the depths of the sea. Oh, the unsearchable depths of my ignorance!
All my claim to theological understanding was exposed as fraud. I staggered at the sudden awareness that not only had I arrogantly deceived others, I had deceived myself; blinded by the brilliance of my pea-brained presumptions. I felt a kinship with Isaiah whose brief encounter with God left him exclaiming, “Woe is me! I am ruined!” I understood Job, who thought he knew God so well and ended up having to tell his Lord, “I’ve spoken of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. . . . I’ve heard of you with my ears; and now I’ve seen you with my eyes. Therefore I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes.” I thought of the apostle Paul declaring, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and unfathomable his ways!”
I remembered Jeremiah saying, “The heart is deceitful above all things and incurable. Who can understand it?” If this is true even of the human heart, what chance have I of understanding the Infinite Lord?
Only later did I remember another quote from Job: “Can you fathom the depths of God or discover the limits of the Almighty? They are higher than the heavens – what can you do? They are deeper than Sheol – what can you know? Their measure is longer than the earth and wider than the sea.” Now, having refound this Scripture while penning this account, I hold it close to my heart and pray I never again let this truth slip from me.
I writhed under the crushing conviction that I had been guilty of idol worship. Like a primitive manufacturing an idol, in my mind I had fashioned God into a static and definable and controllable god, instead of the overwhelmingly supreme, incomprehensibly complex and dynamic God that he truly is. I had had the audacity to try to diminish the terrifyingly superior Creator of everything that has ever been and will ever exist. He holds in his hands everyone’s eternal destiny and every atom in our body and everything that ever touches us. The sickening realization ripped through me that I had treated the Infinite Ruler of time and space almost as a pet – my little puppy dog who occasionally is naughty by not obeying me but who basically acknowledges that I am his master, and superior to him.
I thought of the most revered theologians and leaders in Jesus’ day who were sure they had God and Messianic prophecy figured out. They crucified the Son of God while smugly considering themselves immeasurably more godly and spiritually discerning than their ancestors who had likewise failed to recognize God’s prophets. And here was I, smugly thinking myself better than them and that I had the Infinite Lord figured out.
I fell to the ground; so overawed by the immensity of the Almighty Genius, the Supreme Expert, the Exalted Creator and Ruler of Everything, that I felt as insignificant as a grain of sand on an empty beach before the One who is so inconceivably vast that not even the entire universe can contain him.
You are perfect, I gasped my confession to him. I’m depraved, ignorant, and foolishly conceited. I deserve never-ending hell; you deserve endless praise. I beg your forgiveness of my atrocious ignorance and disgusting arrogance.
I truly loathed myself but instead of the end result being depressing it was somehow refreshing and empowering. Something similar had happened to me several times of late.
I feel I’ve let you deep into my soul; having repeatedly exposed myself to ridicule and disdain by sharing so openly with you. I’m a little apprehensive but I guess I might as well keep going and disclose yet another secret: I have what might be an abnormal dependence upon analogies. It would be over the top to say that my sanity depends on them but whenever something difficult to account for affects me, my mind remains unsettled until I can concoct some kind of satisfying analogy. Without one, I feel somewhat disconnected from reality and from ‘normal’ people. For me, an adequate analogy links the unknown to the known; the inexplicable to the explicable. It relieves me by allowing something apparently weird and almost unintelligible seem less freakish and more understandable.
So would you indulge my idiosyncrasy by considering my attempt to make more sense of how, contrary to all expectations, embracing unwanted truths about myself has turned into a positive experience? I see it as like finally admitting to myself that I have a life-threatening illness and reluctantly undergoing surgery I fear could go horribly wrong. Then, to my delight, it brings me health and vitality beyond my wildest expectations.
I felt more at peace after finding this analogy but I felt there must be another. My mind kept groping until seizing this: it is like being plagued by a guilty secret until finally confessing it to a loved one, expecting it to end the relationship, only to be met by such an outpouring of love and understanding that it results not just in relief, but in the relationship soaring to never-before-known heights of intimacy and fulfillment. That is typical of the God of Truth. He is the forgiving Lord; the God of surprises.
Then everything vanished.