The other morning I woke from a dream about a place I’d been before, with tall, frightening mountains. We boarded a bus with five rows of seats. I’d been talking to a friend who interrupted our conversation by climbing into a seat behind me. I was disappointed. Maybe it was Bruce. We rode past huge escarpments that jutted into the sky, and echoed the Helderberg escarpment, that overshadowed my childhood places. When we arrived at our stop, a thin, beautiful blonde woman stepped out and vomited. It was too far for her to walk back to where we started. Two people rode a cherry red tandem bike. We debarked at an entrance to the carnival and were able to enter without going through the metal detector.
I woke up afraid. What if it’s not true for me what Jesus says, “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out. For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me” (John 6: 37 – 39, KJV). What if it’s not true that benediction that I’ve memorized from Jude. “Now until him who is able to keep you from falling and present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, To the only wise God our Savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen (Jude 24 – 25, KJV). What if I don’t have the faith to believe these words? Isn’t it faith itself that holds the keys to Paradise? What if I am doomed to wander around this place with clowns and Ferris wheels and clanging bells and bright lights that never dimmed without my body, with my friendship with Jesus sifting through my fingers like dust.
When I told my devout Catholic friend about how God purges all that is not of love’s kind, as George MacDonald says, she says well that’s purgatory. Oh my goodness she’s right. I’ve been aware that not everyone will be ready to walk into God’s pure, uncreated light. Maybe we aren’t guaranteed entrance to Paradise right when we die though I know Jesus told the thief on the cross He’d see him in Paradise that very day, when he said you are truly the son of God.
This dream felt like a cattle prod zapping the bottom of my feet. My legs tingled until I pulled myself out of bed and walked to the bathroom.
I felt like I was tottering on the lip of the pit, where I could plunge into the dark night of the soul. The universe is beyond comprehension how big it is. And the intricacies of how animals, even insects, perceive the world is so varied, so creative, almost otherworldly, I wonder how could this creator care about me? How could a God that big, that beyond our comprehension, become one of us and die?
At the end of Tom Holland’s book about how Christianity took over the world, Dominion, he wonders, “The hope offered by the Christian story, that there was an order and a purpose to humanity’s existence, felt like something that had forever slipped my grasp. ‘The more the universe seems comprehensible,’ as the physicist Steven Weisberg famously put it, ‘the more it also seems pointless'” (537).
And I was afraid to die. I’ve rarely been afraid to die. Since I was a girl, I’ve longed to go home to be with the Lord. So I wondered was this my own fear? Or was I carrying it for a close friend in hospice? A friend who was terrified of dying, ashamed of his fear because perfect love casts out fear doesn’t it, so his love wasn’t perfected. He was afraid of the pain—who wouldn’t be? He was afraid because he’d been shamed and shunned by some Christians. Like me he heard echoes of cruel preaching—“If you don’t accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior you’ll wind up in hell, eternally separated from God. If you don’t visit the sick, you could be a goat, and banned to outer darkness.”
My friend and I talked often on instant message, chatting about what we were learning in the Open Table Conference Bible studies. We’d met during the first one covering the Gospel of John, three years ago. The writing teacher in me suggested he write about what troubled him. Though to my shame I asked him to stop because his stories came too quickly and my own brain power is limited and I needed it to write. My friend was extremely gracious and kind when I said I couldn’t read any longer. I suggested prayers that take our shame and pair it with God’s love. Sometimes we talked about our similar views on politics.
I couldn’t believe it when he said he had terminal cancer. On Facebook, he said he was going to move in with his sister because he needed her help. One day I prayed for him while I was sweeping shavings off the mats in the barn. I prayed while I hoisted buckets of water. The next day his sister wrote that he died peacefully.
Then I wondered if I carried his fear until he stepped over the threshold into God’s tender loving presence through this dream which felt more like a vision than a dream. Saint Paul says we sometimes do that for each other, we carry each other’s burdens. In a passage about restoring people caught in transgressions with a spirit of gentleness, Saint Paul says, “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6: 2).
This law of Christ is the exchange of our death for his life. As St. Paul says in Romans, “For in Adam all have died but in Christ all have been made alive.” Charles Williams in The Descent of the Dove quotes a desert father, saying “A certain brother said; “It is right for a man to take up the burden for them who are near to him, whatever it maybe, and, so to speak, to put his own soul in the place of that of his neighbor, and to become, if it were possible, a double man, and he must suffer, and weep, and mourn with him, and finally the matter must be accounted by him as if he himself had put on the actual body of his neighbor, and if he had acquired his countenance and soul, he must suffer for him as he would for himself. For thus it is written We are all one body, and this passage also informs us concerning the holy and mysterious kiss (55). And I remember Madeleine L’Engle telling the story of friend visiting a woman suffering terribly from breast cancer. They laid hands on her, taking the pain, and her pain was relieved.
I don’t know if I truly carried my friend’s fears as he crossed the threshold or if this an imagination. Right after this bit about carrying burdens, St. Paul also says, “For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself” (Gal 6:3 ESV). So maybe that’s all this is, an imagination.
At any rate, I am stepping away from the lip of the pit. I know that I can choose to trust the Lord with all these mysteries that I can’t begin to understand. Once Bruce and I stood on the bridge over the Rio Grande gorge near Taos, New Mexico. I felt the pull of that space, the fall towards the river, the fear tickling my breastbone. I blessed the railing and walked off the bridge.
The dream, faded. The fear faded. I stepped away. I choose to follow Jesus. That old popular verse from Proverbs speaks, “Trust in the Lord with your whole heart, lean not to your understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your paths” (Prov. 3: 5 – 6). And this Jesus I follow has reached down and pulled me out of the depths.
Henri Nouwen’s letter where he said he’d pray for my parents when they died gave me words to pray for my friends who died. “Be sure that I pray for your mother and ask the Lord to receive her with joy and peace of His House.” Until recently I haven’t practiced prayer for the dead, though the habit of praying for Bruce’s mother’s blessing would rise occasionally. But I’ve come to believe the communion of the saints is real, that the writer to the Hebrews was right when s/he said we are surrounded by a great cloud of witness. And that we can ask them to pray for us and we can pray Nouwen’s prayer, “Lord receive her/him with the joy and peace of His House.” I don’t feel so far from my friend or from Brad, a fellow activist and first responder, who this Christmas season stepped over the threshold from this life to the next.
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