This piece is a part of a larger project. First published on Thinking Peacefully on September 27, 2013, it is the second chapter in a larger ongoing work which dreams of the peace of the Resurrection.
Chapter 2: Going to the Fair
Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”
I had always wondered about those words. What did it mean that we would neither marry nor be given in marriage? Hadn’t marriage been created by God? Wasn’t it God’s plan that a man and woman would be one flesh in marriage? What would it mean to be “like the angels in heaven” concerning marriage?
I had a wife in the time before. She was beautiful and smart. And she understood me so well. We shared many of the same ideas and ways of seeing the world. We agreed on most everything, and what we didn’t agree on we could usually find ways of working around. Though I considered myself lucky because she could have chosen anyone, the truth was we were extremely well-matched. We lived for many years in one another’s arms, laughing, crying, and experiencing life together. We had no children together, but we both had children whom we loved, as best we could, together. Our lives were one together.
I remember reflecting more than once as I grew old on how much she and I had grown together. We’d been together so many years that I could hardly remember my life without her. We could communicate complex thoughts and reactions to one another with a glance and understand exactly what the other was thinking. We were together: one flesh.
I can remember being alone with her, reaching my arm around her as we slept, touching her check with my fingertips, and kissing her lips softly as she, half-asleep, moved her lips slowly to return my kiss. The bond we shared was one that no one understood, one that we (all of us) were tempted to take so lightly, to throw away on cheap, selfish encounters—encounters we made to counter the emptiness, encounters that ended up hurting us and driving us further into our isolation. Those encounters were always about what people could take from one another.
But it wasn’t like that with her and me. We truly loved one another. And our love was something that blossomed between us in our togetherness. It was evident to the people around us who saw us together. They saw how we supported one another and held one another’s hand. They saw how I opened the door for her and how she looked at me with love and respect. They saw on the outside the results of the love we shared together in private, a profound and intimate oneness that was only unbreakable because we both knew how very fragile and precious it was.
I remember young people telling us that the key to a healthy marriage had always been the resolution that “divorce is not an option.” She had always said, “Oh, divorce is always an option,” which was a lesson we had both learned the hard way. We had learned that knowing divorce was an option made it all the more vital that we were both healthy and faithful. What we had was too precious to take for granted, and too serious not to take seriously.
I had wondered back then how it could be that God would give me something so very precious, give us something so very precious, and then promise us that in the resurrection we would not have that thing. It often broke both of our hearts so much that neither of us wanted to try to understand it. It was one more reason I had not looked forward to “heaven.”
The last days of my time in that time were the worst for that reason. We had both gotten old and grey. Our children were long grown and raising their own families, pursuing their own lives. We saw them (and our grandchildren) when we could but spent most of our old age alone together. In the early years of our lives together I had been the stronger one. But in those last days I had grown older faster. My mind had lost much of its sharpness; and treasured memories and thoughts had begun to slip away like wisps of smoke from my pipe. I would try so hard to say them to her in an effort to grip them as tightly as I could—only to watch in frustration as they faded out of my grasp. I think back now and wonder what kind of hell it must have been for her as I gradually became less of a companion and more of a burden. I wonder what it felt like to see the one she loved, with whom she’d shared every thought in her brilliant mind, no longer able to concentrate on much of anything.
I remember her expressions from that time: the sadness in her eyes when she came to help me up out of bed in the morning, the hurt when I said something nonsensical but cruel to her in my frustration at trying to articulate a thought, and the brief look of hope when I would momentarily become more lucid. Those brief times were the ultimate bitter-sweet because, for a moment, it was like I was my old self again. I would look at her with wide eyes as if to say, “Oh, yes, I remember—it’s you!” and we both knew that there were only a few seconds to look into each other’s eyes and grasp each other’s hands before I would transform back into the stranger she now lived with. She lived those last few years waiting hand and foot on a stranger hoping for a few seconds a day with the real me.
I was lucid at the end, though. For the last few minutes of my life my mind became as clear as it ever had been. I knew my time had drawn to a close because I could see it in her eyes. She was sad, yes. Deeply sad. What made the sorrow palpable, though, was not just the sense of loss but the sense of relief—relief that my suffering, and in reality hers, was finally over. That kind of relief makes the bitterness all the more painful. No one should be put in a position to look forward to being released from the prison of one’s love for another.
Those last few minutes, all I could think of was her. I lifted my hand to her face, stroked her now grey curly hair away from her blurry eyes and told her I was sorry. I was sorry for what she had endured. I was sorry that I had not been what I’d hoped to be for her and that she had been alone with a stranger so long. But I was also sorry that I was going away and leaving her all the more alone. I had always wanted her to be the one to die first—not because I wanted to live longer but because I wanted to spare her the pain of grieving for me. I was leaving and I hated myself for it. All of that she understood with a glance.
But what I wasn’t clear-minded enough (or there wasn’t time enough) to get across was this: I was sorriest that what we had was completely over. I was sorriest that our moments, our touches, our glances, our dinners, our gifts, our quiet evenings, our laughter, our partnership—was dissolved. We would be raised; of that I was confident. We would have new bodies and new lives. Things would be as they should be. But our marriage would not be (or so I had thought). For that, as I whispered her name, as the darkness closed in on her face and her eyes, as my hand lost its strength to hold hers and I heard her whisper “I love you,” for that I died in despair.
We were complete together. We were one. We had something God-like, something priceless. That oneness transcended time and space, it transcended old age; it even transcended death and the resurrection itself. Sometimes when I am on my porch I remember being alone with her in the dark and wonder at how I appreciate and still love her—and even still feel a oneness with her—but wonder how I am able to be complete even though she is not with me in this time all the time.
I’ve thought about it a lot, though.
One of the authors I used to read had defined the sins of the time before as “eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.” According to him, sin was the decision that we all made (individually and corporately) to be within ourselves the deciders of right and wrong. It was the effort to remove God as the source of what is and place ourselves in that position. The author had said it made us “a god against God.” It was like telling God we wanted him dead, so we could have what he had.
Another author, Nietzsche, had also once claimed that God was dead. He had said that God was dead and we had killed him. And he concluded that it would be up to each person to decide for himself what good and evil was. It would be up to each person to determine what his own value was and what was true about himself for himself. It would be up to each person to gain power over his environment and even the people around him. And the person who could do that would become, what he called, the Overman. The Overman would be the next evolution in humanity. The Overman would become a god. He had said, “we have killed God…must we not become gods ourselves just to be worthy of it?” What was saddest was how much truth there was in his statement.
That was the world we lived in. It was a world in which all of us, at one time or another, were living as the source of knowledge of good and evil. But there was a horrible consequence of that. Becoming the source of knowledge good and evil meant something else—it meant being cut off from the source of life. There were two trees in that ancient garden, and we were meant only to have access to one. We had chosen the wrong one.
Because we had chosen that “tree,” we were cut off from access to life. Our lives, what was left of them, were now defined by death. Death defined us, it made us impermanent. It overcame our ability to transcend. It overshadowed our relationships. It broke us. Our lives became a process of trying to gain life, to take it from one another in a mad dash to extend either the length or quality of our lives. Our lives became a pursuit of power, just like Nietzsche had said they would. We used one another up and threw one another away when we were finished. We fed on one another like zombies, consuming one another in horrific acts of violence and control. And that life of death had propagated itself in that we had all grown up in a world of violence and horror, knowing and accepting only that that was just the way life was. It was what we knew and how we decided to live. It was the central assumption we had about life. And that was what had made it so difficult to believe in the world, or kingdom, Jesus had come talking about.
God was a God of community, a triune God of love and relationship within himself and with us. We were created to live in peaceful community like him. But in sin what was God-like about us was broken and marred. And everything we tried to find life in, everything we used to escape the pain and hopelessness of our death-defeated lives, only broke us further, made us more hopeless, or killed us faster.
Thank God he had the compassion to do something about that. He identified with our suffering and defeated our death. In him we had true hope. This time is the fulfillment of that hope. Our lives as Christians were intended to be lived as a loving, peaceful, and Christlike witness to this fulfillment.
But even as the church struggled to live Jesus’ kingdom, because of sin and brokenness, the world was still a very, very lonely place. I had read that God had created marriage as part of a solution for loneliness. He had said, “It is not good for people to be alone.” And we had marriage.
What was confusing, however, was that it seemed that marriage had been created (at least according to the story in Genesis) prior to sin. That was what I could not understand. The story of Adam’s loneliness and Eve’s introduction had preceded the story of the fall. God had intended their togetherness before sin. Why, in the return to that state, was there to be none of that blessed togetherness now, in the resurrection? Wasn’t this supposed to be the restoration of God’s good creation, which included the oneness of man and wife?
Since then I’ve realized something. Jesus had made his statement as a response to the foolishness of a question put to him. The question had been about a woman who had been married and widowed seven times—whose husband would she be in the resurrection? Jesus had said, “in the resurrection people will not marry nor be given in marriage.” Their question had been a reference to the legal status of her marriages and how the minutia of their legalism would work out in the resurrection. Their question had, in fact, not even been sincere. They were attempting to trap him in a silly debate about resurrection itself. Hence, his statement had referred, I think, to the legal ramifications of their question. I had always thought that he meant that there would be no togetherness for us. But that is not what has happened now.
Adam and Eve had not been “married” in the sense that my wife and I were “married.” There was no ceremony, no legal document. No one had counseled them beforehand and there was no engagement. There was only them together, and their oneness. They had not married, nor been given in marriage. They were like the angels in heaven that way. They were whole and complete in and of themselves, and they were one with each other in a special, God-like relationship.
In the time before, when life was defined by death and people lived lives of desperate self-indulgence in a world of pain, pursuing that God-like relationship of oneness could be a treacherously risky endeavor. And yet, because we had been created for special relationship and because we were broken, we were always seeking intimacy and union. We often thought of it as nothing more than the desire for physical release or gratification but it had always been something far more than that.
In that time our marriages could be sources of joy or sources of never-ending pain. When two people came into a marriage hoping to find life, meaning, truth, gratification, or purpose in the other one—hoping to find in the other what could only be provided by God—those marriages became defined by death and control. They became desperate competitions to extract happiness from the other. Sometimes, the stronger personality would beat the other into an attitude of submission, creating an unhealthy misery of sick, vampiric power and manipulation. Sometimes the couple would live together for decades in frustration, always bitter and always angry with one another. Sometimes the marriage would end, tragically, in divorce. Most often only after it had produced children, who were also hurt by the whole thing.
But healthy marriages were made not by two people hoping to find happiness in one another or give wholeness to one another in some sappy romantic sense. Healthy marriages were made by two people who were, as much as they could be, already whole and happy in and of themselves, and in their relationships with God. They were made by people who, in their union, were able to share their mutual happiness with one another. Healthy marriage relationships were made by healthy people sharing life together because they enjoyed one another, not because they “completed” one another or “needed” one another. That was the story of the relationship of Adam and Eve, prior to their fall.
The concept of marriage as a legal standing that Jesus was responding to was something that had come along much later. The rules and legalities of marriage had been designed, by God, for the same reason he had made all of the rules he had made for his people. They were designed to keep us, as much as was possible, to his initial plan concerning that relationship. But Jesus had come to write his laws on our hearts, not on stone above our heads.
There was also another purpose for marriage—marriage had stood for millennia as a running analogy for the way God thought about his people. God had always been married to them; he had always been faithful to them. But they had not been faithful to him. The marriage had been sick. He had worked hard to redeem it, but, like an unfaithful spouse might, his bride had hated him for it. She had seen it as an attempt to control her as she projected her own sins onto him.
I think now that the institution of marriage was always meant to be a model for the relationship God had intended for us, but also an object lesson for us about us and him. In the resurrection, there is no need for either of those things. There is just peace. That is because the Son had returned for his bride, the church, and the two lived together now in joyous peace of the love of God for his people and the love of his people for him.
In the garden there was no marriage, there was just male and female. There was oneness and wholeness and togetherness. There was peace. It was only after the fall that God had warned, “your desire will be for him, but he will exercise control over you.” It was only after sin that the “rules” of marriage began to do battle with brokenness, selfishness, control, and isolation.
In the resurrection, there is no brokenness any more. There is no control and no power. In the resurrection, we, again, resemble God in our ability to transcend. We can love and care for one another because our lives are not defined by death any more. They are not made up of the pursuit of life at the cost of one another. Life is abundant here because the knowledge of good and evil, again, belongs to God. Since there is no brokenness, there is no marriage. Rather, there is a new marriage, just as we have new bodies. Similar, but far better.
We had once also thought that there would be no world in the resurrection. We had believed that what we had in this world would be gone and we would live forever in a disembodied state. That was what had always seemed to be such a waste to me. We discovered, in the resurrection, that that had been incorrect. The earth is here, but it is a new earth, a reborn earth, a better earth. It is the earth God intended.
Similarly, we had always believed that our relationship, my wife’s and mine, would be gone forever and we would live forever in a dis-related state. This, too, was incorrect. We do have a marriage. But it is a new marriage, a reborn marriage, a better marriage. It is the relationship that God had originally intended.
Earth wasn’t lost. It was reborn. Our love wasn’t lost, either. It was reborn, too.
What had defined marriage in the time before had been its rules…its legality…its attempt to teach us the permanence of God’s intent. In a way, what it had created, though, was a type of ownership that we nearly couldn’t help but assume. It wasn’t because the law was bad, it was because of the assumptions of sin within our hearts. Early in the time before that ownership had been a gender-oriented one. Men had tended to “own” women. They were objects to them. Later, in my time of the time before, some thought of that ownership as a mutual one. We were always attempting to keep one another. The quality of our togetherness was often predicated on proximity and a watchful eye. We had only a limited time in the time before, you know.
What is missing now in that love is not the sense of unity, but the sense of ownership. We are still, in many ways, one. But since death is gone, so is the need for proximity and ownership. She is one with me and I am grateful; we will always be one. But there is no sense of ownership between us. I am whole and complete in myself and she is whole and complete in herself. We see each other sometimes and spend time with one another. But there is no desperate need for constant proximity. We have all eternity to adventure together, and have all eternity to spend time as individuals.
As to the question put to Jesus…about those who, because of death, have more than one spouse in the resurrection—I’ve decided to leave it up to God to decide. In an eternity of wholeness, the question doesn’t have the same sense of urgency now as it did then. But what I experience now, when I see her, is far more joyous and intense than anything I had imagined in the time before. It’s been a few months since we last met, but I know where she’s been and she me.
All this I’d been thinking on the way down the mountain and into town. I left early in the morning, knowing that the journey, at a steady but relaxed pace, would bring me into town as the sun was going down. It is the perfect time to experience the lights, smells, and rides at the fair. I was looking forward to seeing her again, to holding her hand and spending time with her.
When I moved into the house on the mountain she had talked about coming with me. But she had just started a new project in town—revitalizing the old library. She had always loved books, even more than I had. And so it seemed natural for her to stay and do that work. Also, there was someone there who was very special but who had been taken from her by death when she was young, her father. She loved to be around him and spend time with him. But I had wanted to explore the mountain, and so we separated for a while. The freedom and timelessness of the resurrection makes it possible to love one another and still be apart.
But it also means we get to see each other for the first time, as many times as we want.
Whenever I see her now, if we’ve been apart for a while, I get a little nervous. I don’t know why. She always reacts to me the same way. I mean, sometimes she’s flirty, or sometimes she playfully teases me or looks away like I’ve been gone too long—but it’s always in jest because we are so happy to see one another again. My nervousness isn’t fear of rejection. That’s not a problem in this time.
When I think about it, what I feel when I see her again is excitement and wonder. In the time before, the experience of falling in love was always accompanied by these feelings. But, as time grew on, they usually faded into the reality of day-to-day life, and it was often considered a chore to try to keep those feelings kindled.
But now, when we’ve been apart for any time—and sometimes even when we’ve been together for a long time—I find myself nervous and excited. I feel like we’re on our first date all over again.
“I can’t wait to hold her hand and smell her perfume.” I said out loud, unconscious of the fact that I’m now speaking my thoughts. I’d been walking in silence so long that the raccoon in my backpack startled from his sleep and climbed up so that his front paws were on my shoulder and his eyes were level with mine. I turned to look at him.
“Did I wake you?”
I can’t say that his “expressions” are really facial expressions like humans make. They’re more like postures and changes in his body language. Obviously, animals don’t speak, and it’s not clear what they understand. But sometimes, when you have a relationship with an animal, you’re almost certain they’re communicating. I can’t tell if it’s my imagination or his personality, but he looked at me like he was thinking, “Yes, but since I’m up, something to eat would be nice.”
“Yes, it would,” I said. “It is about lunchtime.” As I walked I took a piece of bread from my pack and tore off a piece for him and ate the rest myself. After that we shared an apple that I cut with my pocket knife.
We had left the forest of the mountain and had reached the valley by mid-morning and were well into the field at the base of my mountain by noon. Along the way was a small stream that cut through the hills and through the valley across which a small wooden foot bridge had been constructed. As we came to the bubbling stream, the ring-tailed bandit climbed out of my pack and down onto the ground to splash and drink the clear burbling coldness. I, however, didn’t want to waste any time, so I kept walking. He’d catch up, or else I’d find him waiting here for me when I came back tomorrow. A cold stream with trout in it was far more interesting than a fair to a raccoon. Any other day, I’d have been tempted to stay and explore it with him.
As the afternoon faded into cool blue evening, the colorful string lights of the fair became visible. I picked up my pace a little bit and soon its smells and sounds began to strike my senses. I could hear the vague sounds of people laughing and talking—not the steady sound of a crowd in the next room, but the random waves of conversation and laughter mixed with the music, animal sounds, and the rides of an old country fair.
By the time I was in the midst of the fair, it was dark evening but there was no less activity. I walked past the smiling faces of people walking together, sharing food and laughter, some engaged in thoughtful conversations while waiting to ride the Ferris wheel, or one of the many other rides. Of all of them, I love the Ferris wheel the most. This one stands about 75 feet tall at its highest, its steel arms painted yellow and lit up with bright yellow and white lights all around. Its seats were smooth and curvy hand-carved wood, painted in many pastels and swinging freely from the ends of the arms of the great circle. It rolled ceaselessly as I passed and I remembered the first time I had held her in my arms on a Ferris wheel much like this so long ago in the time before. I thought, “If she’ll ride with me, I may steal a kiss at the top tonight!” So, I picked up my pace.
I knew where to look for her first. She had sent me a letter telling me to meet her in the animal exhibit hall. There on the fairgrounds was a long barn, open on both ends, and quite open inside, the openness broken only by large rough-hewn beams bearing the weight of the roof. All around were moveable pens with animals inside. A pen for goats and some sheep was also mingled with young people feeding them ice-cream cones full of the kinds of things that goats and sheep like to eat. Larger animals, such as some prize-winning cattle and horses, were in permanent pens on the sides where people were gathered to see the prize specimens.
She loved animals. I remember, in the time before, when she first met my cat (who, promptly, became her cat). He was an orange tabby which snow white fur on his belly and legs. She just picked him up and started talking to him like they were old friends. She knew how to truly love a pet, how to enjoy an animal on its own terms. I used to reflect that part of being human and living in peace is exploring God’s good creation. In coming to understand the creation which reflects him, we come to know more of the creator. In learning to appreciate an animal, we must come out of ourselves and our own perspective long enough to learn that animal’s perspective. The ability to enjoy and explore God’s creation, to see it and love it for what it is rather than try to own it or make it in our image, is one aspect of the image of God he gave to us humans. You can’t force a cat to love or to stay with you. If you do, it will become mean. But if you learn to love a cat the way a cat loves, the cat will love you. You must, in a way, love the cat before yourself, as God loves us before himself. She knew my cat quickly, and he loved her until his death.
Of course, that didn’t stop her from making up stories about him. When we were younger, I’d come home from work and she’d tell me about her day. Then she’d begin telling me about all the trouble the cat had been into—how he’d gotten in trouble at cat school and been sent to the principal’s office for dipping one of the other cat’s tails in paste or something like that. And she would be so serious and the way cat would look at me I could almost see in my mind the whole thing play out. And it was so ridiculous we both couldn’t help but laugh.
These thoughts were in my mind as I entered the south entrance of the barn. I knew exactly which pen to go to. In the center was a small wire pen with about two dozen rabbits of different colors and sizes. In the pen, the floor was covered with thick sawdust; and throughout the pen bales of straw were set in random places so people could sit as they petted and enjoyed the rabbits. And from a distance, I saw her sitting on a bale of straw holding a white and brown flop-eared bunny up to her face and looking into his eyes. His long feet hung limp beneath him and his ears were set to the side and hung almost past her hands. Her smile was full of joy. I was too far to hear her voice, but I could tell she’d just said, “Well hello there!” It was then that she turned to face a man standing just outside of the pen. He was leaning on one of the support beams smoking a pipe and when she turned to him and showed him the rabbit, he laughed. I could tell she’d just said something funny about that rabbit.
He leaned into the pen and seemed to say something to it as well, and then he turned and kissed her softly on the cheek. Inside my heart leapt. This man was her father. I watched her face change as her eyes closed when he kissed her. She gently put down the rabbit in her hands and turned to him as he leaned back against the beam and returned to his pipe. Though they were enjoying the rabbits, the evening, and one another, there was a tear of joy in her eye. I stopped and considered what a time of healing the resurrection is. In the time before she had watched him die such a slow and painful death. Throughout our live together she shared her many fond memories of his wit, laughter, love, and all her stories about the things he did and how she loved him were always mixed with the horror of watching him go and the searing pain of saying goodbye.
Now…there are no more goodbyes. There is no more pain. There is just life: abundant life. This is what we were created for. We were created to enjoy this world, to enjoy one another, and to be the image-bearers of a loving and creative God.
Her father saw me first, from a distance. I was standing frozen, watching them from about fifteen yards away. It was partly because I was taken aback by the beauty of that moment. I’ve realized something about the resurrection. In the time before we always talked about how time seemed to speed up when there was much to do or when the experience was really enjoyable. And it seemed to slow to a crawl only when boredom or hard labor was at hand. In this time it is not so. It seems that the reason it was so easy to lose track of time when life was enjoyable was that when the time of joy was over it always felt like there should be more time for joy. Well…in the resurrection, there is limitless time for joy. And, so, I’ve found that moments like that, rather than flying by like a whirlwind, seem to slow down. It seems like, now, times of joy can finally “take their time” and we can appreciate all the wonderful parts of such moments and savor all the significance of every bit of this endless time. I was lost in a moment, beholding a beautiful picture of reunion and peace. It was far too wonderful to rush…and since there is no more death, there is never any reason to hurry.
But my paralysis had another motive. I was also taken aback by her face. She looked so beautiful when she smiled. Her face was full of joy and love. She looked so happy.
And I had to admit, I wasn’t sure what I was going to say.
Her father held up his pipe as a kind of wave to me, beckoning me to come to them. I waved back, but hadn’t started walking toward them yet. She hadn’t seen me because she was looking up at him, but when she saw his attention turned away, she turned and found me. I felt that twinge of nervousness again. My heart was pounding. Our eyes met. Her head tilted a little and her smile changed to one that she had saved only for me. Sometimes I imagined that she had created a whole new smile only for me. I smiled back.
As we looked at each other for a moment she held the little rabbit up to her cheek as if they were both looking at me and she waved his little paw in my direction, too. I laughed and jogged over to her and stood outside the pen next to her father. She stood up and put her hand on my cheek, and I put mine on the back of her head, in her blond hair, and we kissed. I could sense her father smiling at us. It was another timeless moment. We pulled away and looked into one another’s eyes. No one needed to speak. We know one another. The memories are all there. We’re together. We have the whole world and all of the people in it and all of eternity to ourselves, to share.
For a while the three of us stood there with the rabbits and talked. Her father had plans to spend some time fishing with some friends for the evening, so he was going to go. However, I made him promise to come out to the house and spend a few days talking and smoking pipes and enjoying my mountain forest. “You need to see my bear and my mountain lion!” He promised. We decided that the three of us, with a few other friends as well, should spend the next week up at my cabin. After the fair that night I would go back and prepare, and she and he would come a few days later (after they’d packed a little), and a few old friends from the time before would be invited.
After a few more smiles, an embrace and a kiss between them, and a warm handshake between her father and me, he was off to go fishing. We watched him go. I turned to her and she sighed the kind of contented, joyful, time-of-peace, no-more-hurting sigh that we all had become accustomed to in the resurrection.
I put my arm around her and she rested her head on my neck. Then she turned to me and said, “Take me to the Ferris wheel.”
And with that, we walked happily hand in hand into the cool night air with all its lights and sounds.