Surprised by Paradise
TRINITY WESTERN UNIVERSITY LITERARY JOURNAL
Surprised by Paradise
Reverend Richard Woolf gazed out the window, his hands shaking in his lap. His daughter Trudi was driving him to the doctor for routine tests, though lately what they called routine always seemed to turn up something not so routine. Gradually he realized that Trudi was speaking. He heard, "God... blessings...throw out...listen..." It was just enough that he wanted her to repeat it. "Couldn't quite catch all that. Could you say it again?"
Trudi looked exasperated. She raised her voice. "When I left the house last time, you said, 'God's blessings on you.' Before I could say thank you, you said, "That is, if you want God's blessings. If you don't want them, you can just throw them all away.' I said, 'I do want them.' But I wanted to say a lot more. Only I didn't know how."
The preacher interrupted, "Well, you don't act like..."
"No! Let me finish." He saw that Trudi had gripped the wheel hard, and her jaw was tight. "I want you to hear this." She was shouting now, and her face was flushed. To his surprise, Rich could hear every word. "Maybe you're so deaf because you refuse to listen to anyone who talks about a God that sounds the least bit different from the one you think you know. If you ever listened to me, you'd know that I'm grateful every day for God's blessings."
Normally, Woolf heard a tinny but also cottony reproduction of words. Emotional tones had long since disappeared. But now he heard even the anger in Trudi's voice. It sounded like the crashing of metal. It was as if he were being sucked into an enormous vortex. He flailed about, then entered a long dark tunnel.
As he was swept along, he witnessed vivid scenes that he had lived and forgotten, and some he'd never experienced. First he saw himself sitting beside the fire in his living room. His wife stood at the open door. She pleaded, "Please come with me. I'm asking for the last time. It would mean everything to Trudi to have you there."
"I would be condoning her life of sin if I went. If I don't go, maybe she'll repent before it's too late."
His wife left, and he saw himself standing in his church pulpit, shouting and gesticulating, "The wages of sin is death!"
Then he saw an unfamiliar scene, though he knew what it was. In a garden filled with roses of every color, Trudi and Emily stood beneath a trellis exchanging rings before a middle-aged woman in a flowing white robe. Guests stood around them, his wife and son among them. After the ceremony Trudi and Mrs. Woolf hugged and cried.
The preacher continued to be sucked down the tunnel, knowing that he was the cause of their tears. He glimpsed himself in the pulpit again, crying, "The wages of sin is death!"
Then Rich viewed himself and eleven other men, all ministers, seated around a table. He had just cast the deciding vote, ruling to defrock Reverend Bob Mann, his former mentor. Mann had confessed to an affair with Mavis Black, his church music director. Rich saw himself telling his wife after dinner that evening, "If we don't administer discipline here on earth, we fail to give the sinner the opportunity to repent and escape a far worse fate."
The scene changed. He and Trudi sat at the kitchen table. He felt so proud of her. At fifteen she was a Sunday school teacher and a leader in the church youth group. But in that moment, he had to correct her. She had kept talking about needing to show love to those who fell short of Christian ideals. "It's love that will bring them to God," she said.
"You talk too much about love! Don't ever forget the message of retribution."
Trudi jumped up and stalked out of the kitchen shouting, "How can I possibly talk too much about love when the Bible says that God is love?"
Then Woolf saw a scene from Trudi's adulthood. They were saying goodbye, and he said, his voice cracking, "I hope you're ready for the Judgment Day. On that terrible day you will cry out for the rocks and hills to cover you."
Trudi replied without rancor, "I'm facing Judgment Day here and now." In the tunnel, for the first time, he saw the pain in her eyes.
There were more tableaus, and then as suddenly as they began, they ended. Rich Woolf found himself bathed in brilliant, yet soft, silvery light, unlike anything he'd ever seen. He heard exquisite music and felt as though he were crying. But when he tried to wipe his cheek, he couldn't find his face.
In the distance, Reverend Woolf saw Trudi coming toward him. As she drew closer, he saw that she was glowing and smiling and that her eyes were filled with love beyond any he had ever comprehended. She opened her arms wide and embraced him, and he felt utterly lost and totally found.
"Where are we?" he asked her. "Don't you know, Dad?"
He looked around and saw colors and forms that appeared and disappeared in shimmering light that changed from gold to opalescent to silver and back to gold. The sweetness of the music reached such proportions that he felt as if he himself were made of music. He grinned. "I can hear again," he said.
Trudi nodded. Reverend Woolf's chest expanded. "Joy," he thought, though he had the vague sense that he may not have known joy before. Then puzzlement replaced it. "You're here," he said to Trudi.
She nodded, and he noticed that she hadn't stopped smiling since she'd met him.
"But..." "But what, Dad?" she asked softly.
"But I haven't brought you back to the Lord yet. I was afraid to die until you repented and returned to the fold. I longed to come here, to meet my Lord and Savior, but I was so afraid because you weren't saved. I knew you wouldn't be coming here, and I couldn't bear the thought of being here without you. My beloved first-born."
Trudi said, "Something kept you from hearing me."
"Yes," he said. "Something did. Do you know what it was?" He was surprised at the humility he felt and even more surprised that it was a
"I don't know, but it wouldn't be for me to say anyway. I have my own tasks here."
"We have tasks? But...but I thought we would just sing praises all day long."
"Well, I can't tell you much. I didn't get here that long before you."
"That's another thing," he said. "How did you get here before me?"
But Trudi had floated away without answering. Rich was awash with feeling, run through with joy. The joy was simply present and seemed unrelated to anything that was happening around him.
He settled under a great tree, his back against its huge trunk, enfolded by its roots, and began to examine his surroundings. All was pure, soft beauty, shot through with light and color, forms changing as the light changed. He wondered about the sea of crystal, the streets paved with gold, the throne of the Lamb of God, the One whose gospel he had tried so hard to faithfully preach. In the distance he saw a sea that moved and shimmered. It did not appear to be made of crystal. As yet he had seen no streets. The place seemed more like a garden. He wondered when he would come face to face with his Savior.
He felt that someone had sat beside him and turned to see that it was Bob Mann. "It's a little different than we thought, isn't it Rich?" Bob said companionably.
A flood of feelings––surprise, joy, shame, surprise again, guilt and more surprise––overcame Reverend Woolf. He had not seen his former mentor since the day of the defrocking. On that day he had offered to kneel and pray with Mann, but Bob had mulishly, arrogantly walked out without a word. He never returned, and Richard Woolf knew the man had lived out his days with Mavis without the blessing of marriage.
Rich had felt justified in his vote, but the punishment hadn't worked the way he'd expected it to. "You know, Bob, I thought when we took away your ministry you'd see how wrong you were. That you would come back. I wanted you back. Under the right circumstances," he added. Then, "I missed you."
Bob smiled at Rich, a smile full of love. "You did me a great favor back then," he told him. "God had other plans for me, but I was stuck in the rut of preaching."
"What could be more important than preaching the gospel?" Woolf exclaimed.
"I didn't know how to love, Rich," Bob said. "I needed to learn that. Mavis taught me. So many others taught me. When I lost my church I went to teach in a juvenile detention center. I saw where those boys came from. I saw the wounds that moved them to survive through crime. I saw, too, that only love could bind up their wounds. Judgment healed nothing, though at first I owned plenty of it. Especially when I was still so angry and raw over my own loss. In the end my loss taught me compassion."
Rich nodded, then found that he was nodding into the light. Mann had left, so the preacher rose from under the tree. "If I start walking," he thought, "maybe I'll meet some of the people I expected to see here." He passed many beings, only a few of whom looked at all familiar. He sat down again, this time under a spreading oak, mystified that the tree seemed like any oak on Earth.
Another person sat beside him, and at last he saw someone who approximated his expectations. The bearded man wore a long, coarsely spun robe.
"Who are you?" Reverend Woolf asked his voice tinged with eagerness.
The man smiled, and again Rich felt enveloped in pure love. It felt physical, like a soft, warm waterfall caressing his shoulders and back.
"I am Abraham."
"Abraham?" Rich cried, trembling with excitement. "The father of Isaac?"
The man laughed and nodded. "Oh, Father Abraham," Woolf said. He knew he was crying, and again he could not find his face. "Thank you for coming to greet me. I have so much to say. In the short time I've been here, even on my way here, I see that I made some great and grave mistakes. Many mistakes." Now he sobbed, although he still could not feel the tears.
The patriarch nodded, "We all do that," he said. "It is part of who we are."
"No!" Rich cried. "Father Abraham, my mistakes hurt so many others."
"Yes, they usually do."
"Oh, Father Abraham, can't you let me return? Just for a little while? Let me stand once more in my pulpit? The Lord's pulpit," he corrected himself. "Let me go and tell them I was wrong. Just one sermon. Let me undo just a little of the damage I did."
"What would you tell them?" Abraham asked. His voice was kind.
"I would tell them of the unfathomable love I found here." Then a sense of horror pierced him. "I spent my life acting as the accuser. Satan is the accuser. God is love. Ohh. I would tell them that--that God is love." Awe overtook him. "Trudi was right."
"Yes. Yes, she was. And the others, the ones you want to go back to, they will learn what you have learned too. In their own good time."
"But couldn't I go back just once? I could be sent in a vision. I could go to one of those hellfire TV evangelists. He could reach so many people. I would tell him how wrong we were, that he must change his message. Please, Father Abraham."
"Rich, did you change Trudi? Did all your words change Bob?" Woolf was silent.
"My son, be here now. Enter into the joy of your rest. You have been a good and faithful servant." And he wiped away Rich's tears. .
The preacher looked up. Abraham had disappeared and in his place stood the Prophet Mohammed. The prophet held out his hand. "Come," he said. Rich took his hand and floated into light and forgetfulness.