“I died?” I asked. Surprisingly the notion didn’t fill me with fear. I had always expected my death to be a gruesome affair. Honestly, though, it went pretty well, all things considered. I had slipped away sometime between the french fries, and the hamburger. I was eating lunch, I think. It is a little hazy still. Apparently my heart had given it’s finally protest to my long term eating habits.
“Yep, you died.” the man standing before me said.
“I can’t believe it,” I said.
“Well, you must believe because you’re here.”
“Oh, I know. It’s just an expression. Like saying, pot calling the kettle black, or early bird gets the worm.” I explained. How refreshing that the one who had greeted me at the gate was not a know it all. I watched the fellow’s face as a smile stretched across his lips.
“I see.” He said but let a long moment pass.
“I didn’t introduce myself. I’m Mike, by the way.” I said putting my hand out.
“Oh, I know who you are. My name is Drew. I’ll be assisting you today,”
I glanced around. It wasn’t exactly what I expected. It’s not that it wasn’t beautiful, its just that I had expected gold streets and a crystal sea. From what I could tell, this was basically a city. It was really clean, and it looked like fresh construction all around. There was music coming down the length of one of the streets. People were everywhere. The people made me think of my wife, and daughters. They were probably staring at my dead body right now back on Earth.
“So my girls, they’re ok?” I asked.
“Do you mean your family?”
“Yeah, my family back on Earth.”
“Oh they died as well.” Drew said. I could hardly contain myself.
“What? How? I mean I thought it was just me that—”
“Relax. They lived full lives. Each of your daughters married and had lots of kids. There’s nothing to be worried about. They would have made you proud. In fact, I’d guess you’ll be able to see them before long.”
“How is that possible,” I asked. “I only croaked a second ago. Emily was only twelve.”
“You’ve been dead for about a hundred and seventy years. Some time has passed. Oh and by the way, you’re on Earth now.” Drew explained.
“Wait, I thought I was in heaven,” I said.
“Common misconception. The term is ‘Kingdom of Heaven.’ lots of people seemed to miss that.”
“I guess I didn’t see the fine print.” I said a little embarrassed.
“It was normal size print.” Drew said. There was no mockery in it. It was simply a plain truth. “Praise God, the Kingdom has finally come. We’ve been waiting for so long.”
I glanced around once more. I reviewed what I’d learned so far as I watched the people go about their business. I was on Earth, in the Kingdom of Heaven. It was almost two centuries after I my life. My family is lurking around here somewhere. I had more questions but Drew beat me to the punch. He sure kept things moving.
“Come on, I’ll show you around,” Drew said as he gestured for me to join him on his way. I kept pace with him, which felt great to stretch my legs. Oh, did I mention that I’m not fat anymore. Sheesh, I’ve been carrying a hundred-pound Mike-flavored jelly doughnut around my mid-section since I was about 35. I feel like a million bucks. As we walked, Drew pointed things out.
“This road leads to the temple mount. That’s where you have your appointment this afternoon. Over there is—” Drew was saying, but I couldn’t help but interrupt.
“Yes, every new arrival has to meet with the King. You have to get your name and station.” Drew said. He was about to continue the tour, but I suddenly felt a little nervous. That within itself was a surprise. I had expected to be free of anxiety in this place, but there it was staring me in the face like a zit in the mirror. I tried not to sound worried as I probed further.
“I have an appointment with the King? You mean Jesus right?” I said sheepishly.
“Yes that’s right. Don’t worry, it’s normal to feel a little beside yourself. It’s a lot to take in all at once.”
“What will I be doing in my appointment?” I asked as my eyes drifted up the temple mount and surveyed the immaculate buildings there. The main structure, assumedly a temple, stood proud against the perfectly blue sky. Streams of people came and went from the beautiful place on the hill.
“Your appointment is your chance to give account of your life.” Drew said. He stopped at the edge of the street. The smell of something delicious cooking nearby wafted through the air. Back on Earth, or I mean, back in my first life, that smell would have grabbed me like a fish hook in the nostrils. I pleasantly found the strength to resist. I had more pressing matters.
“Account of my life? Now wait a minute. What about all that, ‘saved by grace’ stuff. I thought I didn’t have to go through judgment.” I said, probably looking a little red in the face.
“You are saved by grace through faith. You’re right. You don’t have to go through judgment.” Drew said. A kid, about seven years old zipped by between us laughing. Hey I forgot to tell you, they have kids here too. I didn’t expect that. Anyway. So I was starting to feel a little tense right about then.
“If I’m skipping out on judgment then what is this ‘account of your life’ business about?” I asked.
“You could think of it as the opposite of judgment. Judgment is about punishment. You’re not condemned because of your faith in the Christ.” Drew said. I was about to ask for more information but apparently he read my face. He continued. “The accounting is not about punishment. It’s about rewards.”
“Oh, well that doesn’t sound too bad.” I said, almost asking.
“Certainly not. It is a great day for those who have been obedient.”
My attention had shifted toward the food cart which was supplying the wonderful smells. A man with a huge smile was distributing something wrapped in a flour tortilla-like thing. I was eager to try the local eats. Glancing down, I noticed for the first time what I was wearing. I don’t know what I expected, but jeans and a t-shirt were what I had on.
“Say, what do we got to do to get something to eat, I’m—” I was about to say, ‘starving’ but I realized that I wasn’t. Instead it was a feeling of opportunity. I saw the food cart as an opportunity that I could either enjoy or pass up. As much out of curiosity as anything else I wanted to experience what was being eaten on the street.
“My treat,” Drew said as he gestured to the cart.
“Oh, I didn’t realize—” I started to say, but then trailed off.
“You didn’t realize what?” He responded.
“I don’t mean to take charity. I just kind of assumed that everything was free here,” I said.
“Only entrance is free.” Drew said.
Why had I thought things would be free? It seemed like a silly idea as soon as I voiced it. I turned to Drew and said, “I’d be happy to pay you back later. It’s just that my pockets are empty, and I think I left my wallet with my other body.”
He laughed as we shuffled into the line and waited. The smell grew more awesome as we got closer. Back when I was alive, well I’m alive now… so I guess I mean back in my first life I would have been basically salivating all over my t-shirt by now, but I could sense that something was different. I was excited to eat, but it wasn’t a compulsion. I could walk away and not feel like I’d have to turn around. Back when I was only human, and fat - food was like a tractor beam pulling me in. The golden arches had a hypnotizing effect on me. Here, that simply wasn’t true. It was such a liberating feeling. As we moved forward in line, I thought about what Drew had said.
“So how does one get money? Honestly it never occurred to me that money would be part of the system here.” I asked.
“The economy is not like what you are probably thinking,” Drew said. He paused a moment as if trying to come up with a way to explain it. “You could think of it like a barter system, but instead of trading simple goods we all trade experience. It gives this vendor great joy to use his talents to serve the people. The greater the person he serves the greater the joy. For him to serve me, will give him a great experience.”
“So it is free,” I said.
“No, not free.” Drew said.
“But you just said—”
“I have an idea,” Drew interrupted. “I will step out of line and hide myself from the vendor. You stay in line, and see what happens.”
“Ok,” I said without protest. I didn’t quite see the point but I was up for whatever. As soon as I said the word, Drew was gone. It was like he vanished into thin air. I glanced around, but he was no where to be seen.
“Sir,” said the Vendor. I turned to see the smiling face of the man.
“Oh hello, yes. Could I have one of those tortilla wrap thingies? I hear they are to die for.” I pointed to the tray full of steaming delicacies. They looked delicious and my mouth was watering just being this close. The man continued to smile as he replied.
“I am sorry, Sir. I have a limited supply and there are many important people passing by today. If I give one to you, I may miss out on an opportunity to serve someone much greater.” The vendor said.
In my former life this would have made me really hot under the collar; Flip the table over and bark like a dog angry. I would have become a knuckle-dragging mouth-breathing red-in-the-face neanderthal at the notion of not being fed immediately. However, the weird thing was that I could see the man was right. There was no malice, or derision in his statement. It was a simple fact and it didn’t make me mad. He was just doing what he loved doing, and giving me a dang quesadilla didn’t fit into that plan. I stared at the guy for a few seconds trying to decide how to respond. I was about to duck my head and step away when the Vendor busted out with a gregarious bought of praise.
“Oh, I’m terribly sorry Sir Drew, I did not realize that this man was with you,” The vendor said as his hands went to work. I glanced over and Drew had reappeared. That was a neat trick, I was really going to need to have him teach it to me. I watched as the vendor handed Drew one of his culinary creations.
“I’m showing my new friend around the City. If it wouldn’t trouble you too much, I would love to share your delicious works with him as well.” Drew said.
“Of course, Sir Drew. It would give me great pleasure.” In short order, the vendor handed me a warm wrap. I thanked him and stepped aside to let the line through. I knew something strange had just happened, but I was too focused on the food item in my hand to consider it at the moment.
I ate slowly, something I had never been able to do before. It was as if pure delight exploded inside my mouth. I could have cried it was so good. When I had swallowed I was greeted with a warm feeling of satisfaction. In my former life I would have called for “MORE,” as if the vendor were a peasant and I was an unsatisfied medieval Duke. No that implies too much dignity. I would have charged the food cart like a hungry bear and ransacked it wildly.
It was in these small things that I could sense that something had changed. My lust for food had been too deep, too all powerful for me to ever beat it. Now It was as if the memory of the eating was satisfactory. I could enjoy another tortilla-wrap someday, or not. Either way the experience had a kind of competition to it that I’d never experienced.
“Come, Mike,” Drew said. “I want to show you more of the City, before your appointment.”
We walked the streets. After a little while I began to notice this feeling. It started in my chest and kind of worked it’s way out. It was this electric tingling. The simplest way to explain it was an excitement to be here. However, there were so many more layers to it. Every sight was joyful. Every sound was a masterpiece. The place was about as close to magical as I could imagine. Or was it me that had changed? Was this place normal, and I had become a new creature? I came to the conclusion that it was probably some of both.
After walking and taking in the sights for a while Drew sparked up the conversation again. “So, do you understand what happened at the vendor’s cart?” Drew asked.
“Simple,” I said. “You’re kind of a big deal.”
“What do you mean by that?” Drew asked.
“I mean, you’re a celebrity or something. That guy knew who you were. Were you some kind of rock star in your first life?”
“Oh I see,” Drew said with a laugh. “No I was a school teacher in my first life. I taught sixth grade math. The funny thing is, I wasn’t even a very good teacher.” I looked at him sideways. That didn’t make sense but I played along.
“Ok, so how does a 6th grade math teacher score free tortilla wraps?” I said.
“Obedience.” Drew explained.
“Hmm. Not sure if I’m following.”
“Your appointment with the King is in less than an hour. The account you give of you life is extremely important. He will look at every action that you ever took since you became a believer. He will reward you based on how well you obeyed him.” Drew said. I gulped hard. That didn’t sound as simple as I had previously thought.
“What happens if I—”
“What’s done is done.” Drew said. He placed a hand on my shoulder. It helped somehow, but it didn’t remove the anxiety.
“Are you going to be there with me?” I asked.
“Even if I was, it wouldn’t matter. When you stand before the King you can think of nothing else.” Drew said.
“It’s heaven though, right. I mean it’s all good stuff here. He’s not going to like, chop my head off or something is he?” I said. When he didn’t respond right away my nervousness began to swell. “It is all good stuff right?”
“It depends on how you look at it.” Drew explained. “For those who did their best to follow Christ in their mortal lives, they are rewarded greatly. Those who were lazy will miss out on what they could have had.”
“Oh man,” That’s scary. A knot was growing in the pit of my stomach, but I pushed it down the best way I knew how. “Should I prepare what I’m going to say?”
“No, it doesn’t work like that,” Drew said.
I wanted to ask more questions, lots more questions but Drew kept moving. He walked me through another set of streets. I was right, he was kind of a big deal. There were a lot that knew him by name. I’ll give you an example. A lady who sold colored fabric came out to him and offered him a bolt of purple material. It glistened in the sun like it was made of pure love.
“It would give me great Joy if you would take and use this gift,” The woman said. Drew smiled at the woman and reached for the fabric. He spoke with a genuine tone that portrayed more love and compassion than I’d heard from anyone. Ever. Period. 6th grade math or now, this guy was a rock star; Kingdom of Heaven style.
“It’s beautiful. You’re so Kind. Would you please have it delivered to my estate? I am showing my new friend around the city.” The woman seemed overjoyed. This happened over and over. It was nuts. He was like a star of NFL, NBA, NHL, Movies rolled all into one. As we rounded a corner and we got a few seconds of quiet I spoke up.
“So what did the King say to you at your appointment?” I asked.
“There are many things, and the time before your appointment is short,” He said.
“But he rewarded you didn’t he?”
“What did he give you?” I asked. I had no idea what kind of gifts a King gives. My perception of royalty was basically limited to what I’d seen in movies. Usually those make-believe kings had more of a ‘tyrannical villain in a plaid skirt’ flavor. I was pretty sure that was not what this King was like. Instead of answer right away, Drew dropped to the ground. He bent down on one knee and raised his head toward the temple mount, which we could still see in the distance.
“I thank him for what he gave me, ever time I think of it.” Drew said. I watched him stand slowly back to his feet. Normally I would have been struck with some social embarrassment, but all I felt in the moment was a type of envy. I don’t mean the kind of envy I used to feel. It’s not like, ‘my neighbor has a faster sports car than me, and I want it.’ It was a pure desire to be so single minded. I wanted to be like Drew. In that moment, I could see I wanted to be like Drew because he wanted to be more like the King.
“So what did he give you?” I asked him again. Now I really had to know.
“Fellowship,” Drew said simply. I was a little confused.
“You mean like—”
“I mean he gave me fellowship with himself. He gave me a seat at his banquet table. He gave me a nation-state to rule. He gave me crowns of gold.” Drew said almost in a whisper, as if the newness had not yet worn off. Maybe it never does in this place.
“Wow, crowns, and a nation to rule. So you’re a king. That’s awesome.” I said.
“The crowns, and the rulership are the least of the gifts. Fellowship with him is the true gift. You will see.” Drew said.
I was about to ask more questions, but Drew’s attention was drawn away from me. He turned once again toward the temple mount. I looked that direction as well, and I knew. I could sense that my time had come. I could feel the drawing in my chest.
“It is time, Mike.”
“Yes, I know.”
“I have deeply enjoyed our time together. Welcome to the Kingdom, Brother.” Drew said. Once again he vanished. I turned my face toward the temple and began to climb the hill. My heart beat fast as I made my way upward to my appointment. I had very little idea what waited for me there.