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Chapter 11: The Walking Handbag
Despite an insane urge to skip like a little child, I retained my respectability and strode manfully along the path, even if repeatedly interrupted by the need to examine yet another botanical curiosity or to stare in awe at a particularly stunning sample of the apparently unending variety of spectacularly beautiful flowers. As I continued with appropriate dignity, two fragments of Scripture began to tease my mind: “ . . . a little child will lead them . . . and “ . . . unless you change and become like little children . . .” The words haunted me, but seeing no relevance, I dismissed them.
The living carpet I was privileged to walk on has forever left me disappointed with human technology. There seemed something particularly exciting about it being alive, but I struggled in vain to identify exactly why being alive made it so special. The floral carpet simply seemed as superior to artificial floor coverings as living animals outclass stuffed exhibits in a museum. Under my every stride the pattern the miniature flowers formed was unique. The variations seemed endless, and the extravagant beauty and sumptuous feel was without earthly rival. As I walked, its grandeur made me feel like royalty, and yet it was so magnificent and pristine that it graced me with humility as the feeling grew within me that no one but the King of kings was worthy to step on it.
Actually, nourished by my experience in front of that cross, the mere thought of stepping where the risen, once-crucified Lord of glory might once have trod made me feel like falling to my knees in adoration. I resisted the urge, of course. I’m not into kneeling. Besides, I had no rational basis for supposing he had ever been here.
As physiologically ridiculous as it was, I strove to sharpen my every sense and open wide every pore of my skin, hoping to draw deep into every part of me, all the exhilarating splendor and perfection surrounding me, from the ever-changing melodic artistry of songbirds, to the individual fragrances of uncountable varieties of flowers, to the sensuous feel of the air, to the rapturous pleasure caressing my eyes wherever I looked.
I began to notice that whenever I passed a particular species of shrub I felt strange but pleasant sensations. As usual, I cannot describe the feeling. Think of it as a cross between heartwarming and thrilling, mixed with a delightful serenity. Similar shrubs were scattered throughout the garden. They varied in shape and color, making each one unique, but they seemed to belong to the same genus. Their large, furry leaves were nearly as colorful as flowers. On earth they would be considered exceptionally beautiful but the truth is that other plants in this exotic realm looked more spectacular. And yet I felt strangely drawn to them.
As I continued exploring, I found myself paying more and more attention to these comparatively plain-looking plants. It was ever so slight, but the leaves seemed to reach out to me, point in my direction, and follow me as I moved past. Obviously an illusion, I concluded. I became curious enough to pause and examine one such bush. As I stood looking at it, I noticed its leaves moving so slowly as to be barely discernable. In a minute or so, all the leaves seemed to be facing me. I took three steps to the other side of the bush so that the leaves were now facing away from me. Sure enough, within about ninety seconds, all the leaves were facing me again.
As earth’s plants benefit from sunlight, was this plant able to tap into the lower end of the light spectrum and derive some benefit from my body heat? But why did it make me feel so good after the trauma of witnessing the crucifixion?
A vague recollection surfaced of having read that grief and trauma release chemicals into the body that can have an adverse effect on one’s mind and body. It was the wildest of theories and probably way off track but I wondered whether this plant was radiating something that breaks down those chemicals.
The Scripture popped into my mind from the book of Revelation, “And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” As I continued walking I was puzzling over whether that Scripture had even the slightest relevance to what I was experiencing when another intricate water feature came into view. Though very different to the first, this one, too, seemed almost hypnotic and subtly musical. As I let the intriguing effect captivate me for a few seconds, it swept over my senses like a skilled pianist over ivory and ebony; like the fingers of a masseuse; like the sweet caresses of a lover.
I moved closer and reached out, letting the water trickle over my fingers. To my surprise, it was delightfully warm. While adjusting to this surprise, I gradually grew aware that it felt unusually oily. I rubbed some between my fingers. In comparison, water feels disappointingly thin, almost rough. It was then that I noticed under the water – or whatever it was – a cozy hollow covered with a thick, moss-like water plant. A quick double check confirmed that I was alone. Almost before I knew it, I had slipped off my clothes and slid into the inviting water. As I had hoped, the underwater moss was silky soft without being worryingly slippery. The water was just the right depth for me to recline and be covered up to my chin.
I drifted into a dreamy contentment. A normal person might have luxuriated there for hours, but there is little normal about me. Some people have a type A personality that keeps them restless. Mine must be triple A. Some might say that’s just the tiny size of the battery that would be more than enough to keep my brain powered for centuries. Anyhow, for me there was far too much to explore to squander time in an out-of-this-world spa.
It was then that I began to contemplate a minor problem. I had plunged in so impulsively that I had not considered emerging with a wet body, and dry clothing awaiting me. I climbed out and immediately what I can only call a warm whirlwind sprang up. Problem solved. But a new one beckoned. Surely this was not a coincidence. Had I triggered some automated process or was this a direct act of God? A cursory hunt for pressure pads or light beams left my question unanswered.
I was wondering how long that oily substance would take to dry and whether it would leave a greasy residue, when the exhilarating wind stopped quicker than I had wished and I found myself snugly dry. My skin felt so fresh that I began to wonder if the oil, instead of being a disadvantage in the drying process, might counter any tendency of repeated wind treatments to give me dry skin.
While pondering how the whirlwind had ceased right on the cue, an unsettling thought hit: had the wind somehow been switched on and off by someone spying on me? I anxiously scanned my surroundings. It revealed no peering eyes, but plenty of opportunities for paranoia, in the form of possibilities my scan could not eliminate. With each plant crammed tight against the next, the garden was too dense for anyone to move off the path, but the flatness of the topography at this point, combined with the density of the vegetation meant that I could see only a few yards from the path. I presumed the vegetation continued beyond my line of sight but for all I knew it could be entirely open back there, allowing a hundred heads to pop up from some back entrance and stare at me whenever they chose. And how could I detect spy cameras?
I quickly dressed, trying to comfort myself with the thought that anyone caring enough to dry me at the appropriate time must be pretty benevolent. Despite my best attempts, however, I could not entirely dismiss the possibility of such an incident happening in a horror movie featuring a psycho-killer.
I decided it wouldn’t hurt to pray for protection. Then it dawned that once again I had been ignoring God. I was a bit disgusted with myself to realize that here I was in idyllic surroundings with my every need being met and I still had not thought to thank God and appreciate his loving kindness. I grappled with that for a moment and concluded that no one has ever been so much taken for granted as God; no one has ever had his love and patience so exploited and abused. Like self-centered brats, we keep demeaning the Supreme Power, the Ruler of the Cosmos. So often we expect him to bow to our every demand, and throw a hissy fit if his infinite wisdom does not line up with our puny thinking. We call him Lord, meaning master, and then treat him as our slave. “Lord, do this. Lord do that.”
As I continued discovering endless new delights in the garden, I pondered this role reversal many of us play with God. Surely God does not want cold formality. My mind flashed back to the King of kings playing with those child parts of emotionally wounded people. And it seems wrong to ration ourselves as to the requests we make of God. I recalled how in his teaching, Jesus kept pleading with us to ask God for everything. There is no question that as the greatest lover in the universe, God longs to bless us.
While drinking in the beauty of my surrounds, I kept trying to crystallize in my mind why taking God for granted feels so wrong. It cannot be that I should slavishly, or even superstitiously, thank God lest he stop blessing me.
I thought of another pitifully short memory verse: “God is love,” and tried to think through the implications. True love is incompatible with being self-absorbed. To love is to delight in someone and want the best for the person. It is focused on the other person. It is “other-centered,” not self-centered. So I concluded that the God of infinite love must be continually focused on others. He cannot be self-centered or egotistical. As highlighted by our Savior, he is willing to sacrifice absolutely everything for us. And neither is God insecure. It is not as if he is emotionally deficient and needs to feel appreciated. It cannot be for selfish reasons that he seeks our praise and thanks.
Nevertheless, despite being willing to steel oneself to suffer for the beloved, love is not cold and clinical. It seeks a response. It craves interaction with the person. To my surprise, a new definition of love formed in my mind: to love is to make oneself emotionally vulnerable, exposing oneself to the pain of rejection. Love is risky. I recalled seeing a wall plaque that said something like, “If you love something set it free. If it returns, it is yours forever; if not, it was never yours.” If you maintain iron control over things you can avoid heartache, but to operate in love is to give people permission to crush you.
I marveled that a God who had everything and was totally sufficient in himself would expose himself to all that pain. I flooded with warmth to think that God has put aside his self-sufficiency to make himself vulnerable to me, giving me the power to delight him or hurt him emotionally. It was as if I grew several feet taller to think how exceedingly important God has made me by granting me power over his heart – the power to make Almighty God happy or sad.
It felt as if still more were behind a totally unselfish God wanting my thanks and praise. I reasoned that by preventing us from being self-absorbed, praise and thanksgiving makes us more Godlike. Then it hit me: what makes a lack of gratefulness so tragic is that it stunts us as people and diminishes our capacity to see God’s love and greatness.
This awareness struck me with such force that I began to wonder if, this side of eternity, I could ever grasp how much I have damaged myself, shriveling my capacity to perceive God, by failing to foster a spirit of gratefulness to him.
I looked around me, noting that the further I walked the brighter the flower colors and the more exuberant the tone of the garden. Praise and thanksgiving transports me and transforms me, I told myself. It lifts my thoughts from the gutter. Through it, not just my thoughts, but my very life, soars from the trivial to the eternal. It not only lifts my spirits, it lifts my spirit; it not only makes me feel better, it makes me a better person. I felt I needed to think and pray more about these things but they seemed right.
Although unable at that moment to recall where, or how often, I knew that at least some translations of Psalms speak of magnifying God. That peculiar expression tantalized me. Who can increase infinity? I finally concluded that while praise cannot make God bigger, it magnifies my ability to behold his glory. Praise sensitizes us to the supernatural.
My thoughts retreated to my encounters with those angelic thugs who wanted me as their pet, and how I had been so pathetic that I only barely managed to escape. Then I remembered Jehoshaphat’s astounding victory over fearsome hordes of enemies by sending the choir into battle ahead of the army. They won by praise and worship. Not a single weapon was used. My mind raced to a peculiar passage near the end of Psalms that speaks of executing vengeance upon God’s enemies with the high praises of God in one’s mouth. Is praise and thanksgiving the forgotten element of spiritual warfare?
I almost leapt internally with the excitement of finding a missing jigsaw piece. I had barely begun to enjoy the elation, however, when a memory threatened to choke me. I saw myself in that uncomfortable round room trying to sleep, rather than find Scriptures I was now belatedly remembering.
I had no idea that filthy angel would return so soon! I told myself, trying to struggle free from shame’s stranglehold. Then I recalled Jesus speaking of foolish virgins, lazy servants, and so on, fervently warning over and over about the necessity of being ready at all times. Despite our smugness, to be human is to not know what the next moment might bring. So how dare I, a mere human, goof off, regularly feeling so sure that right now is not the critical moment?
It came to me that everyone must make the most of every moment of peace, since we never know when and from what direction we will next be attacked. Times when we think we can take it easy are critical, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to ready ourselves for the next challenge. Every second we squander is lost forever. It is not all work – part of our preparation will be relaxation and refreshment and enjoying God – but a key part will be prayer, worship and growing in knowing and living the Word of God.
Phew! Where are these thoughts coming from? Are these thoughts entirely my own or is God slipping at least a few of them into my mind? Why do I find it so hard to differentiate between my own thoughts and God? And why hadn’t I seen things with such clarity when on earth? I began to worry about whether I would ever get back to my previous planet and era but I tried to dismiss that and focus on loftier matters.
The memory returned of how I had felt so weak in the presence of those ugly angels. Then I remembered Nehemiah’s refusal to let the people grieve over their sins and, instead, declaring that the joy of the Lord is their strength. One of my memory verses from years ago came to me: “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice.” How tempting it would be to dismiss those words as head-in-the-clouds fanaticism, except that they were penned by the apostle whose repeated whippings, stonings and so on, had to have kept his feet on the ground.
That word “always” is most annoying. Obeying the Scripture would be a cinch if only it had said rejoice in the Lord sometimes. Why did God have to spoil a perfectly sensible verse? Another ridiculously short memory verse by the same apostle came to me: “Rejoice evermore,” as the old version puts it. That was equally unsettling. The cold-blooded truth is that when things get tough I often act as if my suffering has earned me the right to be miserable. More words from the apostle echoed in the canyons of my mind: “You are not your own, you were bought with a price . . .” I caught myself starting to feel miserable about not being allowed to feel miserable.
I knew that putting it into practice would be highly challenging but I was just beginning to think I might be edging towards getting an intellectual handle on the importance of rejoicing in every situation when I suddenly remembered what I had so recently discovered about tears and not living in denial. Instantly, my newfound elation over being able to see things clearly in this place fizzled. I slumped into confusion.
Oh, man! I complained. Is the spiritual life really so frustratingly complicated? Why is the Bible filled with almost impossible statements and made even worse by apparent contradictions? I consoled myself with the thought that we would have little need of a Bible filled with what to us is common sense. How could a book crammed with the wisdom of an infinite God be genuine unless it sends reeling anyone trained in wisdom deduced by finite minds?
The Bible has certainly met that criterion for divine inspiration, but how do I reconcile the apparent contradictions? The time-honored way is to block from one’s mind one of the seemingly contradictory truths and live just by the other. I probably do that much more than I care to admit to myself but with this particular pair of contradictory truths, each one was now too vivid for me to block out. There must be a balance somewhere.
I recalled Ecclesiastes stating there is “a time to mourn.” Did it also mention a time to rejoice? I couldn’t remember, but from the structure of that little poem about there being a time for everything, I presumed it said something like that. I revisited the incident when David had cried and then encouraged himself in the Lord. Next, I tried in vain to marry Paul speaking often of tears with the fact that he also spoke so often of joy and rejoicing.
David was a powerful, battle-hardened warrior. Jeremiah was thick-skinned; divinely hardened against rejection and ostracism. Paul kept pushing himself into joy and rejoicing in the midst of extreme suffering. And yet all of them cried often. How baffling!
Thoughts had been flying like a whirlwind on a shredded Bible but at this point everything ground to a halt and I was left in brain-numbing bewilderment.
With nothing else coming to mind, I paid more attention to my surroundings. Fascinating plants, however, proved unable to distract me from my confusion over how I could live out these Bible truths without falling into hardness and denial, or going the other way and losing all joy.
One plant had beautiful, vase-like structures that looked quite sturdy. Wondering what they looked like inside, I gently put my hand around one to tilt it towards me. To my dismay, it snapped off in my hand. I looked inside and found that it was three-fourths filled with fluid. It was as if I were holding a cup in my hand, and there was something peculiarly inviting about that honey-colored fluid.
Could this plant be insectivorous? I reasoned that if these “cups” were designed to trap and digest insects as a nutrient source for the plants, the fluid could be highly poisonous. After considerable internal debate, I dipped my finger in it. It did not sting or feel corrosive. I hesitated, rushed off a text-message-length prayer (maybe shorter) and then foolishly risked putting the tiniest amount to my tongue. As I had hoped, it was honey-sweet. In fact, it was so delicious that I wanted to drink my fill of several “cups,” but I held back.
Could it still be poisonous, despite the taste? I recalled back home using poison laced with sugar to attract and kill ants. In that case, the goal was for the ants to take the poison back to their nest and end up killing the entire nest. That could not be any advantage to this plant, I argued. But I had only been thinking of the plant ingesting the insects. What if the purpose were to keep the area free from insects that could somehow damage the plants – perhaps from insects that nest by boring into stems or roots. Then I realized that even if insects go away after drinking the nectar, they could still fertilize the plant’s soil if they died in the near vicinity of the plant. This lead to an off-the-wall possibility: what if in this world plants do things not for their own survival advantage but to help other plants?
My yearning to drink this highly tempting nectar kept me debating the whole matter with myself. Why do some people seem to hear God so clearly and here am I constantly wondering what to do?
I wondered if it even mattered if it were poisonous, since the end of Mark speaks of safely drinking deadly poison. Then I worried about the controversy over whether that part of Mark belonged to the original text. Then I recalled under Elijah’s ministry (or was it Elisha’s?) poisonous food being safely eaten. So the tiresome debate continued to rage. Sometimes I wish I could just switch off my brain.
Underneath all that mental commotion, however, I still felt confusion gnawing away at me over how anyone could possibly remain emotionally tender and in touch with reality, and yet strong and joyful in the midst of pain and tragedy.
Of course, it was easy to dismiss the whole issue as cultural. People in the Bible lived in a society where it was acceptable for men to cry. It is a safe guess that this affected the upbringing boys received. My stiff-upper-lip upbringing must have been different and whereas little boys’ emotions are pliable, by now my emotional hang-ups have become hardwired and I am stuck with them for life. Will you join me in feeling sorry for poor me?
That’s too convenient a cop-out to sit comfortably with me. For starters, being joyful was clearly not some sort of automatic response for Paul’s original readers, or he would not have had to keep urging them to rejoice. Moreover, if Christ has set me free and if Jesus could talk about being born again as a child of God, why should I be in lifelong bondage to my original birth and upbringing? I might be like an addict for whom breaking a long-established habit is highly challenging, but is the God of the impossible up to the challenge or is he not? It had taken me ridiculously long, but finally I remembered that the Christian life is meant to be humanly impossible. It is supernatural: a union between us and Almighty God.
I slowly savored that thought, occasionally more actively chewing it, as I kept exploring this botanical wonderland, continually discovering new surprises to marvel at. Gradually the thought formed that our union with God is like a driver’s union with a car. Just as a car and driver can together achieve humanly impossible speeds and distances, so we can achieve the humanly impossible through our union with the all-powerful Lord.
That was an intriguing twist to a metaphor I had often used. Until then, I had always thought of my life being the car and God being the driver but for my new metaphor to work, God had to be the car. Anyhow, I was sure that the truly spiritual person puts God in the driver’s seat.
If God is both the car and the driver, I’m merely the passenger. I was surprised at how empty and deflated that made me feel. I tried to dismiss the feeling as pride that I needed to kill. Not only did I continue to feel uncomfortable about being a mere passenger, however, it clashed with my experience. If I’m just a passenger, why do I still need the Bible to teach me about emotions and a vast array of other things? Why is the Christian life not simply one decision to hand God the controls and thereafter living a truly godly life is automatic?
As I pondered this I felt compelled to a conclusion so contrary to my timeworn metaphor that it felt like heresy. No matter how spiritual we become, God always puts us in the driver’s seat. He provides the supernaturally powered vehicle and longs to give us the best possible journey by being a driving instructor, navigator and companion. If we yield to God’s guidance, he decides where we should go and might sometimes even give moment by moment suggestions about route, speed, driving technique and so on, but we always remain at the controls, with the power to ignore him.
My union with God is about slipping into his car so that I can do what is humanly impossible and then daily yielding to his wisdom as to how to drive this powerful vehicle.
Life is far more complex than learning to drive, however. As I pondered the issues, it seemed to me that we Christians consciously live part of our lives God’s way, but we live many aspects of our lives the way we always have, quite unaware that there is a better way. The practical reality is that there are simply too many facets of our lives needing change for us to attend to all of them at once. If we keep growing spiritually, the Christian life is a continual adventure throughout our time on earth, as we find ourselves repeatedly surprised by discovering still more ways in which our lives can be improved and become more Godlike. Each discovery is just the beginning. We must then courageously decide to attempt the new method and then endure the long mistake-ridden process of learning, until we become proficient at it. Once mastered, however, each transformation liberates us, bringing us more peace and fulfillment than we had ever imagined.
A noise high up in a tall flowering hedge startled me. I craned my neck in time to see an animal scamper down. Once it hit ground level it stopped motionless, staring at me quizzically. I had never imagined a creature could look so comical. Its big, floppy, almost unkempt ears were enough to set me laughing. It had the cheekiest-looking face I’ve ever seen. Suddenly it took a flying leap at me, landed on my chest, and began tickling me! The next instant I was sprawled out on the floral carpet, thrashing around, laughing and laughing. If the plant with leaves that followed me – and so much else in this place – had somehow drained me of the negative, this cheeky ball of fur was filling me with the positive.
Until this friendly attack, I had been carefully carrying the “flower cup,” not having the heart to litter. Of course, I knew it should be biodegradable – assuming there are organisms that perform this function here – but everything was so immaculate. I had not seen one leaf or petal out of place.
Of course, the “cup” had spilled on to the ground during the commotion. I had been too distracted even to think of it until I saw the animal gobble it up. Apparently the contents had poured on to the “carpet” because he carefully licked it. In two seconds everything was pristine again.
Finally, I found my feet. With my new friend cuddling me, I continued to wander and wonder.
Suddenly, my heart almost left my chest as this clown of an animal shocked me breathless by leaping off me and bolting up a hedge that towered above me, where he proceeded to pick fruit, some of which he scoffed hungrily but some seemed to vanish. His movements were so fast as to be almost a blur. Then he dived onto a bush and, despite it looking so dense as to be impenetrable, he somehow managed to slip his fingers into it. This time, some berries were swallowed and again some seemed to vanish, but it was all too quick for me to be sure. By repeating this on various other hedges and bushes he found several varieties of fruit, berries and nuts. When he finally headed back towards me I immediately noticed his bulging, lumpy stomach. I was amazed at how he must have gorged himself.
As he drew near, his forearm touched his tummy and suddenly there was fruit in his hand. Is this a clown or a magician? Finally, I figured it out. He had a pouch, rather like a kangaroo’s, stuffed with the uneaten food he had just collected. Is he a she? It was only then that I realized I had originally referred to this creature as “it.” How quickly this rascal had won my heart!
My cuddly companion handed me some of his/her collection. Of course, I knew rationally that just because they were edible for this alien did not mean they were safe for humans, but there was something peculiarly disarming about his/her generosity and mannerisms. In fact, as totally irrational as it is, I did not have the heart to disappoint my new friend by declining his/her kindness. After a little hesitation, I found myself cautiously savoring what turned out to be the best fruit and nuts I had ever eaten.
My benefactor quickly emptied the pouch and the next instant was zooming in and out of shrubs and hedges again, refilling the pouch with another mouth-watering assortment of gifts for me.
The nuts had soft edible shells that were a distinctly different but highly compatible flavor to the nuts they housed. I enjoyed a few of one variety before it dawned that although they tasted salty, no one had added salt. It was their natural flavor. One nut had a sweet-tasting liquid in the center that sent me hunting for more of this type in the mixed assortment that had been left for me.
Most of the fruits had several layers, with each layer being a different texture and flavor. One, for example, was structured a little like an apricot, with a delicious, thick skin quite different in taste from the flesh. At the center was a “stone” that melted in my mouth like chocolate, but tasted more like honey. Another fruit had flesh slightly reminiscent of grapes with soft seeds scattered through it flavored remotely like macadamia nuts. My attempt is akin to saying snake tastes like chicken but how can anyone describe a unique taste?
As I thanked God for this delightful creature-cum-handbag and for exotic food that took my taste buds to new territory, I returned to lamenting not having been more thankful to God earlier. Even more than forgetting to thank God, I was disappointed that for so much of my typical day I barely even think of him. I recalled from a well-loved psalm how, unlike the way I treat him, God knows my every thought and is always thinking about me. Suddenly, I saw an obvious link I had never noticed before. God knows my every thought because he is always thinking about me. Maybe, being eternal and infinite, God could play catch-up, but if had he had human limitations, whenever his mind was elsewhere he would miss what I was thinking at that time. Does that mean that the more my thoughts are on God, the more I’m likely to know his thoughts? And since God’s thoughts are unsurpassably profound, important and wise, how can I even conceive of how much I am robbing myself – to say nothing of robbing God – when my thoughts drift from God for hours at a time?
Then another question queued up for attention. If I regularly think of earthly things ten times more often than heavenly things, will that make the mundane seem ten times more real to me than the supernatural?
I was just beginning to puzzle over these possibilities when a bubble drifted by. It was so unexpected that I stared in astonishment; even more so when the gentle air currents caused it to almost dance. Where did it come from? As I proceeded along the walkway, with my furry comedian playfully clinging to my chest, more and more bubbles of varying sizes greeted me, arousing my curiosity still further.
As far as I could determine, a species of plant was producing the bubbles. That raised more questions than answers.
I marveled at how in this world, like in many of the others I had ended up in, I was a child again, bristling with questions and wide-eyed wonder. A simple stroll was the adventure of a lifetime. I felt rejuvenated; my once-jaded senses awakened from the sleepy haze of sameness by the crispness of a pristine new world.
There was something peculiarly special about the solitude but, with so many unanswered questions, I wished I had a knowledgeable guide. Or would that have spoilt the childlike wonder I felt?
Even without answers, however, I found the bubbles rather fascinating and enjoyable, especially as they gently spiraled, plunged, soared and wobbled in the delicate air currents.
As I enjoyed the sight, my thoughts reverted to that maddening verse: “Rejoice in the Lord always.” As I kept mulling over it, I found that although “always” was unsettling, “in the Lord” was actually beginning to make sense. Life is filled with unpleasant circumstances but I am not asked to rejoice in them. No matter what the circumstances, however, God remains as good, kind, loving and exciting as ever.
For the first time ever, I saw a link between this verse and Colossians, where we are exhorted to set our minds on things above, not on earthly things. When earthly circumstances are bad, our ability to rejoice depends on whether we focus on the temporal or the eternal; whether we dwell on the depressing circumstances or on the God who remains perfect and more exciting than any madly in love man feels about his bride on his wedding night.
Hey! With my focus continually slipping from God to circumstances, it’s no wonder I have difficulty rejoicing “always”! This really is making sense!
I continued exploring until I became aware of a voice. I wrenched my eyes off the enticing beauty of a flower to look in the direction of the voice.
To my surprise, it was the very angel I had been thinking about not long before – the one who had been distracted by the beauty of a flower. Kokbiel had what seemed like a piece of paper in his hand. He glanced at it, then said in a bold, dignified voice, “He’s not here.” He had another go, “He’s not here. He is not here. He is risen.”
I put down my furry friend, feeling the need to focus intently on what was being said. While Kokbiel was speaking I noticed three angels walking towards him. They stopped abruptly and looked quizzically at each other.
Kokbiel, with his back to them, seemed unaware of their presence. Using different intonation and gestures he repeated, “He’s not here. He is risen.” After a pause he had yet another attempt. This time in a grand gesture he swept his hand around, followed by the rest of his body. “He is not –” Suddenly he was far enough around to see the other angels. “Oh – ah – didn’t notice you.” Do angels get embarrassed? I chuckled to myself at the possibility but was it just his reaction to being startled?
“What in Heaven are you doing, Kokbiel?” asked Meurel.
“Oh – um – just practicing my lines.”
“Fair enough,” said Gabriel, laughing, “that’s the greatest announcement the universe will ever hear.”
Kokbiel seemed taken aback. “Yes, I guess it is. I never thought of it like – Oh, dear! I’d better practice some more!” He moved on slightly, gesturing and silently mouthing the words again.
“That empty grave will knock them dead!” said Meurel, excitedly.
“What do you mean?” asked Gabriel, in his usual dignified manner.
“Everyone will have to believe when Jesus rises from the dead.”
“No one ever has to believe,” replied Gabriel rather soberly.
“They can’t deny the facts.”
“They’ll find a way.”
Meurel sounded mystified. “How?”
“They’ll dismiss it as an hallucination.”
“No way!” protested Kairel, “ . . . spread over forty days with five hundred witnesses?”
That caught Kokbiel’s ear. “Five hundred?” he asked.
“That’s how many the risen Lord will appear to” replied Kairel, “And his disciples will touch him and eat with him. Some hallucination!” They all laughed.
“And that still doesn’t explain the empty grave,” added Meurel.
“They’ll say the disciples stole the body,” said Gabriel.
Meurel laughed. “The religion with the highest conceivable morals, based on the biggest swindle in human history? You’re joking! Simple fishermen putting one over a hundred generations?” Meurel, who had earlier fooled me when he acted as if hurt by the boomerang, began walking on his toes in a delightfully comical way. “Tiptoed past blind guards I suppose!” I burst into laughter.
“Oiled the stone so it wouldn’t be heard!” added Kairel, rolling on the ground in hysterical laughter. The others laughed even harder.
“Who could believe that not one of the five hundred, even when dying a martyr’s death, would let it slip that it was all a hoax?” said Meurel. They sobered a little.
“In it for the fame I suppose!” jested Kairel. “They’ll be in big demand all right. The Jews will be demanding their lives. The Romans will be demanding their heads. Christ’s yellow-livered deserters taking on the Jewish leadership and the entire Roman Empire – and all for a sham!”
“Maybe they’re in it for the money,” sniggered Meurel. “They could make a fortune teaching people how to win popularity contests!”
Kairel added, “Or they could write a best seller: How I earned My First Million Bruises.”
“With books like that they could earn enough to keep them in bandages for weeks!” replied Meurel, laughing, then quickly turning serious.
“Cash is cold comfort when you’re looking death in the face,” added Kokbiel, gravely.
“If they want money they’ve got a much easier option. Christianity is set to explode. If the Jews think they’ve killed their problem they’re in for a shock. They’ll soon be running scared. They’d pay big money for someone to prove it’s a hoax,” said Meurel. “No, Gabriel, no one could believe they’re in it for fame or fortune. And if they’re into fraud, the first thing they’ll change is their own account of their actions. Those dull-minded disciples would be so wise and holy in the gospel tradition they leave posterity. If truth’s not important to them then the denying, deserting disciples would in their gospels be loyally supporting Jesus when he’s sentenced to death. The Sons of Thunder would portray themselves as calmly in control. Loudmouth Peter would ensure he’s the epitome of diplomacy in the revised version. Self-seeking liars don’t paint themselves as bumbling idiots!”
“Gabriel, no one could deny that those scatter-brains are sincere.”
“They’ll say Jesus was merely unconscious when they took him down from the cross,” said Gabriel.
All except Gabriel burst into fits of laughter.
“So he survives an horrific flogging, followed not only by crucifixion, but a spear driven from below his ribcage into his heart,” replied Meurel. “He convinces experienced Roman executioners that he’s dead. Then he fools his mother and followers who’d give anything to find a sign of life as they prepare his body for burial. No breath. No bleeding from his open wounds. Then, without them noticing, he manages to breathe through nearly a hundred pounds of spices and tightly bound grave clothes. Next, he somehow bursts through his bonds, and with nail-crushed hands single-handedly rolls back a stone so massive that several women pushing in unison couldn’t budge it.”
“And Jesus was on the inside,” added Kairel.
“Hey, that’s right!” exclaimed Meurel, “This gets better by the minute!”
“I don’t get it,” said Kokbiel, a slightly puzzled look on his face.
“A gravestone is like a solid wheel chiseled out of rock, designed to roll downhill at right angles to the grave,” explained Kairel, “and, of course, its purpose is to fully seal off the entrance. You don’t want odors escaping. From the outside, people trying to move it, push against the rim. From the inside there’s nothing to grip.”
“That settles it! Escape was humanly impossible!” Kokbiel looked triumphant.
“Skeptics will say that by some miracle . . .” Gabriel managed to say no more.
“Skeptics who believe in miracles?” declared Meurel.
They erupted into hysterical laughter. Meurel was bent over, holding his tummy. Kairel was rolling on the ground. Kokbiel was on his back kicking this legs in the air. Finally they began to calm down.
“Okay,” said Meurel, trying to be serious, “by some inexplicable means, what must have been the world’s strongest man and greatest escape artist staggers out of the grave . . . “
“Not bad for someone so mutilated before his crucifixion that he couldn’t drag his cross even to avoid another beating,” interrupted Kairel.
Meurel continued, “Then he eludes armed guards, somehow hobbles out on nail-pierced feet, gaping wound in his side, back flayed, bruises and lacerations from head to foot, blood dripping everywhere –”
“If you could imagine blood left in that tortured frame,” said Kairel.
“Looking the most pathetic human wreck, he staggers all the way back to the upper room, breaks through a bolted door and in his emaciated condition manages to convince even the most skeptical of the disciples that he’s conquered death!”
They were all in fits of laughter.
“Finally,” continued Meurel, “he gives his followers the slip and manages to die in such a way that his body is never found. The world’s greatest moral Teacher becomes the world’s greatest con artist? I think not!”
“They’ll say it was simply someone who looked like Jesus,” replied Gabriel.
“Oh no! It’s getting worse!” protested Meurel, “Not only Jesus’ closest earthly friends, but his very mother was just inches from him when he died. Then they prepared his body. Soon they’ll be handling the risen Lord, examining the nail holes, speaking with him and eating with him over a period of forty days. And his own brothers – brought up with him from infancy – who didn’t believe him before his death, will suddenly become believers after his resurrection appearances. That’s not mistaken identity, that’s insanity!”
He had them in fits of laughter.
“You’re right, of course,” said Gabriel, “but many will still refuse to believe.”
“Why?” asked Kokbiel and Meurel almost simultaneously.
“I know you’ve never visited earth, Meurel, but I’m sure you’re familiar with the reports of Jesus’ teaching,” replied Gabriel. “Jesus told the people, ‘If anyone desires to do God’s will, he will know whether my teaching is from God . . . .’ You remember that don’t you?” They all indicated that they did, then Gabriel explained. “Spiritual truths are hidden from everyone unwilling to obey God. It’s insane, but these people close their minds to reality because they would rather be enslaved by their favorite sins than enjoy intimacy with their loving Creator. They prefer ignorance to truth.”
“Even though that truth would fill them with never-ending joy and eternal fulfillment?” quizzed Kokbiel.
“Yes, Kokbiel, even though it’s the most exciting truth in the universe.”
“Like Jesus said, ‘Men love darkness rather than light for their deeds are evil,’ ” said Meurel.
“Then why is Jesus doing all of this, Gabe?” asked Meurel.
“Because some will be willing to face reality – to admit their need of God and to let go of selfishness long enough to discover the matchless joy of knowing God – to exchange a life of shame and mediocrity for eternal glory and divine excellence.”
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be redeemed . . . !” said Meurel wistfully.
Gabriel looked at him. “There are indeed so many wonders awaiting them. They are destined to rule over us, but to be redeemed you’d first have to be deceived . . .”
“Oh!” interrupted Meurel with a shocked look on his face.
“And you’d have to sin . . .”
Meurel uttered a peculiar groan and seemed almost to shudder in disgust.
“ . . . and be alienated from the Holy Lord until forgiven,” finished Gabriel.
“Of course!” groaned Meurel, “How could I have overlooked that? Nothing in all of Heaven would be worth doing that to our glorious Lord!”
There was a pause, then Gabriel said, “Hey, Kokbiel, it’s almost time for your announcement!”
Kokbiel, looking flustered, vanished.
Then everything vanished.
A voice boomed. It seemed to come from everywhere at once. It sounded highly authoritative and charged with excitement. Slowly I became aware of my surroundings. I seemed to be back in that endless “palace,” except that the sky was no longer like a rainbow. I guess the closest earthly equivalent of the sky would be dawn.
“What’s this?” asked the voice.
“The tomb is vacant.
The vanquished has vanished.
The corpse walks.”
Myriads of angels erupted in thunderous cheers. Eventually they quieted sufficiently for the voice to continue. It paused after almost every line and, as impossible as it seemed, at each pause the angels raised their jubilation to yet another level.
The cross has lost.
The nails have failed.
The One impaled has prevailed.
The crucified has defied.
The tomb is doomed.
Seals break. Demons quake.
Death has fled.
Justice is done.
Right has won!
Holiness has crushed depravity.
Defeat flees his majesty.
Innocence bled; now demons see red.
They railed but failed. So hail
The Lamb who slammed
His foes and rose
From horrendous strife to endless life.
The scourged to death
Has surged through death.
The One brought down
Now wears the crown.
Hell’s plaything now ruler of everything.
From Victim to Victor;
From judged to Judge;
From cursed to first,
From death he’s burst
From grave of stone,
To Great White Throne.
The Lamb has roared.
From Hell he’s soared;
Jesus is L-O-R-D!
As that final word rang out, the angels exploded in a cheer louder than anything I have ever experienced. I want to call it deafening or earsplitting but despite the outrageous volume it neither deafened me, nor hurt my ears. Instead, it somehow energized me, as though the energy from that explosive sound entered my body and became my new power source.
The angels turned cartwheels; flipping and gyrating like only angels can. Their feverish excitement was so infectious that within seconds my emotions were on overload. The sky erupted in a burst of color. I know it sounds almost incomprehensible, but my best attempt to describe what I experienced is that the very air seemed charged with rapturous emotion. I recall thinking it was surely beyond human endurance to remain conscious. In fact, that's the last I remember of the celebration.
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