My friend, Phillip looked at me and his mouth fell open. “Your what?”
I had built the spaceship myself. The viewscreen was composed of two old glass windows with the panes still intact. The console was a mixture of broken radios, the insides of a huge stereo, and the guts of an old washing machine. I had placed some twinkling Christmas lights behind the console to make it look like it actually worked. The “captain’s chair” was a bucket seat from an old car and the sides and roof of the control room were made of old doors and rusted tin shingles. To my friend, it was a barely organized pile of junk. To me, it was my spaceship and I was the captain!
We never played in the spaceship. Instead, we went back to my bedroom and talked about girls and baseball and girls and pizza and girls. We were in the seventh grade and Star Trek was in its second year on television. Phillip and I were best friends for the next few years. We went to junior high school, high school, college, and medical school together. When it came time to decide what type of doctor to be, Phillip just assumed I would follow in his shadow. He just knew I would become a cardiologist and move to a far away state to do my internship and fellowship. But, something had happened along the way. I had fallen in love and my girlfriend, now my wife, would be 1000 miles away if I went with my friend. So, I made a decision. Phillip didn’t understand. He said something that clearly separated our individual concepts of how each of us would “change” the world.
“You owe society a debt. You need to pay back to society for your education.” He would say.
Funny, but I seemed to recall I owed the bank a ton of money in educational loans. “Society” hadn’t paid my way through college and medical school. I grew up on the farm and only now do I realize we were poor. I stayed behind and became a radiologist. Phillip went on to become a cardiologist. We were at opposite ends of the medical “social” station. Radiologists are at the bottom of the food chain. Cardiologists rule the world.
This all came to mind today as my wife and I went to one of our local malls so I could find some dress pants on sale. You see, I’ve lost almost thirty pounds since January and I have two book signings next weekend so I need to look my best. As we walked down this long hallway filled with those fancy, air brushed photographs of all the local politicians and business leaders and social movers and shakers that this mall was known for, I stopped when I realized the latest picture, the photograph of “The Outstanding Business Leader” of 2011 was none other than my friend Phillip. My wife went on shopping and I just stood there looking up at my friend.
Curiously, I wasn’t jealous. I didn’t feel like a failure. Phillip deserved this recognition and I know him well enough to realize he probably received the honors reluctantly. He is, and always has been, a humble man. And, his work with local schools and statewide educational reform had been effective. He had fulfilled his dream of changing the world by paying back his “debt” to society.
So, what had I done? Had I performed anything quite so impressive as my friend? Would I one day get the call that I had been chosen to grace this hallowed hall with my portrait? I doubt it.
As I stood there, I realized that God had taught me powerful and painful lessons over the years. Time and time again, I found myself like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life” dreaming of going places and doing famous things only to have some little crisis intervene that kept me rooted right where I was.
I thought of the man who got up and ran out of the church after seeing one of my plays because he thought it was about him. I had never met the man, but that night, he met Jesus and it changed his life. I think of my friend R. whose decadent and playboy lifestyle had ended one Sunday night when he reluctantly sat through my play, “Crosstalk” and it changed his life forever. He met Jesus and in the years that followed led literally hundreds to Christ.
I think of the woman who wrote a passionate email to Mark Sutton and to me about our book, “Conquering Depression” and how she had the pills in her purse and was ready to die when she asked God to show her a book that would help. She didn’t take the pills, she met Jesus.
I think of Benny who just passed away yesterday of liver cancer standing behind me as I showed him the CAT scan of the cancer in his liver. I think of how I offered to pray for him and how one of his fellow Xray technicians took him under her wing and made sure he met Jesus before he passed away. Veronica showed me his certificate of baptism just one week before he died.
All of these seemingly small and insignificant events swirled around me as I looked at that portrait. I had not become a cardiologist. I had not followed my friend to the ends of the earth. But, I had followed my Savior. And, He had taken that strange and fertile imagination that could turn a washing machine agitator into a warp engine and He had used it to touch and change lives of people I will never know this side of heaven.
Do I brag? How can I? It is not my work that I now see in my mind. It is the work of God, the great unfolding passion of his Story; the inclusion of man and woman and child in the script He has written that began with the creation of the universe and passed through a fertile garden past a devious serpent and through the wilderness to a ram in the bush and the blood on a doorpost and a prophet surrounded by lions to a manger filled with peaceful animals and a glowing star. The lines of that script lead down the dusty road to a caravan where a twelve year old is missing; to a baptism of water and a dove; to the Adversary craving for worship. Down, down the long hallways of memory past ousted demons and living, breathing corpses renewed with life; past loaves and fishes to a lowly donkey carrying the King of Kings and a hushed, darkened room filled with ominous shadows while the Creator washes a dirty foot. It leads through the other garden filled with sweat and blood to the bloodied fists of the soldiers and the fresh flesh clinging to the cat of nine tails to the drops of blood trailed along the road by the splintered wood of a cross. It leads to a cross standing tall and defiant against the sins of all mankind; the sins of all time and space; an anchor point in eternity where God and Flesh and Life and Death and Redemption and Love all converged in a holy singularity that would rip the very fabric of life asunder as it conquered death.
The script is still unfolding in the light that is cast by the empty tomb. It is still moving all around us. And, although I do not have my portrait on a wall of fame, my name is written in the only Book that counts, the afterword, the director’s notes, the epilogue to the Story of God.
Steel looked away. “I feel like I’ve only lived for two years, Claire. I can’t remember most of my life. I’m not ready to die.”
He felt her hand on his cheek. “Silly, I don’t want to die, either. I said I’m not afraid to die. Imagine you’re a caterpillar.”
Steel raised an eyebrow. “A caterpillar?”
“Just go with it, Jonathan. Your whole life is spent crawling along a leaf and eating. That’s all you do. You have no appreciation of where the leaf is. You have no idea of how far you are from the ground if you were to fall. You never see the bird that swoops down to devour you. Your appreciation of the universe is limited. And then, one day you feel this horrible sensation of dread. You feel a change coming. You’re going to die. You dread it. You fear it. You go on eating and crawling pretending it’s not going to happen. It happens. You spin yourself into a cocoon of death and know no more.” Claire’s eyes were wide with emotion. The night air grew still and close, thick with humidity. Time seemed to slow.
“And, then Jonathan, you awaken. Your body stirs and you realize you’re no longer dead. Your cocoon falls away and you spread out huge, luminous wings. You crawl away from your death shroud and you take to the air! You’re no longer a caterpillar. You’re a butterfly! You fly through trees and fields of flowers. You see the sun and the stars. An entire universe you never could have imagined is yours to appreciate. And suddenly, you spy a caterpillar crawling along its leaf. You watch your former self and you wonder how you could have ever wanted to stay like that.”
“That is death, Jonathan. We’re fat, clumsy caterpillars waiting for the day of metamorphosis. We fear the cocoon. But, when we emerge on the other side, we’ll look back from God’s eternal perspective and wonder how we could ever have wanted to stay like this.”
I’ve been overwhelmed at the response to this one passage in “The 13th Demon: Altar of the Spiral Eye”. Some say it is “profound”. Others say it is “comforting”. But, why?
Just yesterday, we learned from a very moving testimonial to the life of Steve Jobs by his sister that his last words were “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.” What did he see? Did he emerge from a cocoon and see his new form as a “butterfly” free from the confines of this earthly shape? Or, did he see the Creator in all of His splendor, majesty, and grace? No one can say for sure. But, he did see something.
This weekend, I also watched “The Captains”, a documentary by William Shatner interviewing all five actors who have played a captain of a starship in the Star Trek franchise. The most odd person was Avery Brooks who spoke in lilting metaphors and piano riffs and made very little sense whatsoever. The most concrete was Shatner himself, taking every opportunity to tell his own story of his life and how it was affected by his stent as “Captain Kirk”. But, what was most disturbing, most troubling was the answers he elicited from those he interviewed about God and what happens after death. Most answered, “I don’t know.” And, Shatner’s answer was his final lines as Captain Kirk in the ill fated “Generations” Star Trek movie that bridged the gap between the classic Star Trek universe and the Next Generation universe. As Captain Kirk lay dying his final words were, much like Steve Jobs’, “Oh, my!” I guess Shatner was expressing his desire that he hoped something was out there and whatever it is, he will be surprised.
Recently, the Discover channel premiered a show “Curiosity” and the opening episode answered the question, “Did God make the universe?” The physicists and cosmologists on the show were emphatic. There is no God. We don’t need God. The universe made itself. Even Stephen Hawking proclaimed there is no God and heaven is a “fairy tale”.
How then to put all of this together? I would say that each and every person listed above is nothing but a fat, clumsy caterpillar. Of course from our limited perspective, we can say there is no God; no transcendence; no afterlife. After all, what is our greatest desire? As a caterpillar it is to eat more leaves. In fact, give me a rain forest of leaves without predators and all of eternity to eat leaves! Wouldn’t that be the best existence? And, to defend such a Choice, for it is ultimately a choice; a worldview; a personal decision what to believe; yes to defend such a Choice we must say there is no butterfly! There is nothing beyond the cocoon. That makes all of THIS more important; more desirous; more under MY control. For the butterfly lies beyond my control in another dimension of reality that many would called the realm of “fairy tales”.
Steve Jobs triumphed the adage, “Think Different”. It is time for us to think different; think beyond the leaves and the clumsy state of existence and realize there is something beyond us; something that brought all of THIS into existence and something that has prepared an existence as fantastic and unimaginable as a butterfly is for a caterpillar. We are destined for that far country where we will fall at the feet of our Savior and say “Oh wow! Oh wow! Oh wow!”