Everyone Says That at the End of the World – Owen Egerton
Everyone Says That at the End of The World
By Owen Egerton
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Pearl-Swine was rocking. They were tearing their way through a second encore at the Celibate-tion Rally in Boston. Pick had cowritten a song for the night:
Your body is a masterpiece, God crafted every part.
But just like a museum— don’t touch that work of art!
The song slammed into Pick’s solo. He was scurrying up and down the neck of his guitar while watching a teenage girl dancing in the front row. She was wearing a tight shirt that read won’t do a thing—until i wear a ring. The faster he played, the faster she danced. Her eyes were closed, her body moving like one of those inflatable wiggle-men outside of used car lots. Pick smiled and let his fingers find new notes, new highs.
Crack. Like someone snapped the sky in two. From somewhere a trumpet blared. For a moment Pick thought the keyboardist had accidentally hit a bad chord, but in an instant the crowd was gone, his guitar was gone, the band was gone, and all was light. It was bright enough to blind him, surely, but his eyes didn’t hurt. Overwhelming, but he was not overwhelmed. Why weren’t his eyes closing? Why was the air so warm? His body floated . . . like that day in Salt Lake City during the Stormin’ the Mormons tour. He had soaked for an hour in Salt Lake. Warm, floating, sun pouring down. This was like that, but the light came from not just above, but from everywhere. He was floating in the light.
“I’m going home,” Pick thought, and a lump of happiness the size of a small dog squeezed up from his chest and into his throat. “Jesus is taking me home.”
His second thought as he floated was, “I do not deserve this.” He knew this was an appropriate thought. He had voiced it many times. But never had he felt it more sincerely than that moment. The light was pure gift.
He could feel motion. Was this really his body? Were those his feet? He had read several books describing the Rapture. Most said, yes, you and your body are taken. But some said it was more a “spiritual” journey and your body is left like the shell of a fruit or something. But look, his feet, his thighs, his . . . Oh, God, I’m naked, he thought. Oh, God, I just took God’s name in vain. Oh no. But then he breathed in, breathed in the light. It was more beautiful for his sin. God’s grace and glory is magnified by my depravity. Yes. I should have sinned more! God be praised! Praise his name. And in the light Pick broke into his backing vocals for Pearl-Swine’s finest praise song, “God of My Life and God of my Heart.”
God . . . life . . . God . . . heart! Oh, oh, oh.
He could see nothing but the white-gold glow of it all, but he could hear voices.
Then the light cleared like a morning fog and he was there. Heaven.
It was beautiful. A sky more blue than the purest blue, stone arches and towers scattered along the rolling green hills, white-peaked mountains in the far distance spotted with navy-blue lakes. It was just like he had imagined only better, brighter, richer.
People were everywhere. All of them naked. But no one cared. No shame, like the first days in Eden.
Children chased rabbits, an old woman picked flowers, a young woman danced in the grass. It was the girl from the concert! Her shirt was gone, but he recognized her. She had long blond hair and tawny skin that . . . Oh, goodness, Pick thought, not even five minutes and I’m lusting. He quickly looked back to the old woman bending over a flower bed. That’s better.
The lust surprised Pick. He had thought that when he finally made it to heaven he’d be leaving his sin nature behind. Wasn’t that what Paul said? Aren’t I supposed to be perfect now? I’m not even close. I can feel sin all over. And I’m naked.
Not too far away Pick could see people donning white robes. Wonderful. They were being handed out. But does everyone get one? Maybe just the really good folks. Oh, I hope I get a robe. Wait. That’s so selfish. Surely the selfish don’t get a robe. So I don’t want one. I want the others to have them. But am I just saying that so I can get one? Oh, God, help.
Someone handed him a robe. “Here, brother.”
Pick took a deep breath and slipped on the robe. Stop being such a judge, Pick. The robe was light, soft. Flowing against his naked body. Don’t think like that. Come on.
Now people were moving. Pick followed. So many faces, but he saw no one he recognized. Yet he knew them all. They were family. People were gathering around a stone platform. Pick had to squeeze by some people and push up on his toes to see what everyone was staring at. There, sitting in an oversize throne, was a small, dark-skinned man with a knotted beard and long scruffy hair.
“Jesus!” a little girl near the front yelled.
“Jesus?” Pick said. Pick studied the man. He seemed shorter, darker than Pick had expected. The man’s robe was too tight around the shoulders. He kept tugging at it.
“It is Jesus!”
“Praise you, Jesus. Praise your holy name.”
Nearby a group broke into “Amazing Grace” but sung to the tune of the Eagles’ “Peaceful Easy Feeling.” Pick joined in. He’d always loved that version. He opened his palms to the sky, toward heaven . . . but wait . . . he redirected his open palms to the man on the throne. Others were doing the same. All singing, swaying. Some people were singing different melodies, or even the wrong words, but that was okay. Family.
Pick didn’t even mind too much when after the last chorus of “Amazing Grace” a group of young men burst into “Love Tree” by the Christian ska band Praiseville. Praiseville had recently knocked Pearl-Swine from the #1 slot on the Christian Top 40.
First will be last, he reminded himself. First will be last.
Before the end of the first verse, Jesus jumped to his feet and raised two thick arms above his head. The singing stopped. The man climbed up on his throne and spoke. His voice was rich and compelling, tinged with anger but full of compassion. Pick could not understand a word. It was a language he’d never heard.
The man pointed to his chest and made wild gestures to the sky.
“Yes, Jesus, you’re God. Yes!” someone yelled. Several people fell to their knees. Jesus shook his head violently. He jumped from his throne and tried to pull people to his feet.
“Why is Jesus acting that way?”
“How do we know it’s Jesus?”
“The Bible says many would claim to be him.”
The man spoke on. He tried to mime something. He bent over and picked up imaginary objects from the ground and placed them in an imaginary basket.
“Is he picking up trash?” someone said.
“He’s saying we should clean.”
“Shouldn’t Jesus be able to speak English?”
The man dropped his arms to his side. He looked tired and small. The little girl who had first called his name stepped up to him and touched his hand. Jesus placed a hand on her head.
“Don’t touch him, honey. We don’t know who he is.”
“Check for holes in his hands!”
“No, it’s the wrist . . . ”
Jesus opened his arms to the crowd. Again he spoke. Pick still didn’t understand a word. Maybe it was his fault he couldn’t understand, maybe he didn’t have ears to hear? Language was a difficult subject for him.
A tall man with thick brown hair jumped up beside Jesus. It was Richard Van Sturgeon. Pearl-Swine had played more than one event where he was the speaker and Pick had read at least two of his books.
Van Sturgeon gave the crowd a warm smile. “Ah yes, friends. Hear the words of the Lord. He is welcoming us to his kingdom.”
Jesus said a few more words.
“I believe he says he is so happy to see his holy bride finally in the wedding chamber.”
Jesus lifted his shoulders said something directly to Van Sturgeon.
“Oh, he says, he says, welcome to your reward, good and faithful servants.”
The crowd cooed. Van Sturgeon let his voice rise and fall like a sheet in the wind. He moved across the platform, every so often raising his palms toward Jesus as if he were hot. Jesus looked at him without smiling and stepped back.
“I believe he also saying some of us still have the residue of sin. Yes, yes. Some of us are still unclean. Yes, people. We have carried the filth of the world into heaven like a child tracking mud onto a mother’s carpet. Yes. Now tell me, and tell Jesus, who here is saved?”
Hands popped up everywhere. Pick put his up, too.
“But yet we have sin.”
Jesus was sitting on the footstep of his throne and watching the crowd with a furrowed brow.
“As a little boy back in Arkansas I’d hear my papa order me to take a bath and I’d run to the sink and splash some water on me. Now was I really clean, people? Was I washed? How many of you have only sink-washed in the blood of the Lamb?” Van Sturgeon gestured to Jesus, who tried to say something, but the man continued. “Yes, yes, Jesus. We have fallen short. But tonight we can be made clean. You can come up here right now. Right now! And be made clean!”
First just one or two stepped forward, then a few more. Soon people poured onto the stone platform. Soon Jesus was lost in the crowd.
Pick turned and walked away from the crowd. He felt dizzy and almost panicked. A strange vibration rumbled between his lungs.
He could pass on the altar call, he knew. He had washed in the blood of the Lamb about as much as one possibly could without drowning. Saved at the age of sixteen, again at age nineteen, baptized by water at age twenty-two, baptized by the Holy Spirit at age twenty-three, seminary classes the same year (though he never got a degree). He gave a quarter of all his earnings to charity and the church. He visited children’s hospitals. He had long gospel-sharing conversations with strangers and homeless people. He had never had full intercourse with a woman except for one slip (literally a slip). He had walked the walk. So why did he feel so out of place?
He walked over a hill and through a garden of roses. Soon the roar of the crowd was only a distant hum. A small river ran through some green hills. He followed it upstream, watching the water slide over rocks. A few others were wandering about, but the majority of people were still listening to the man beside Jesus. Pick came up to a boulder on the banks of the stream. He climbed up on to it and watched the water skim by.
Best just to be. Look how pretty it all is. Look at the colors. Things will be okay.
His mother was here somewhere. And his grandfather. And the band, they must be around. Plenty of time to find them. Milton and Roy wouldn’t be here. That’s sad. He wished they could get in. Roy was a great singer. Dave was fine replacement, and a really solid believer, but Roy was more fun to watch. He’d jump three feet straight up while rocking out. Pick had made the joke that it was Rapture practice. Those were good days. He wished he could see them, but Lazarus couldn’t go from Abraham’s bosom to the abyss. That seemed so harsh. But who’s the pot and who’s the potter? What was it his professor had said? “The question is not, Why doesn’t God save everyone from hell? The question is, Why does he save anyone?” Of course, that professor was a Calvinist. And Pick was an Evangelical. Emergent, even. But knowing Milton and Roy and his dad and that old Arab lady who ran the 7-Eleven and his first girlfriend and his sister were all either suffering in hell or in the seven harsh years of earthly tribulation did dampen the beauty of the clear stream and blue sky.
Jesus would explain everything. Maybe Pick would have to learn Aramaic. It had been language studies that had driven him from seminary, that and Pearl-Swine’s tour schedule. But now there was time. Jesus would explain. It’d be like coming across a C. S. Lewis quote that perfectly answered some nagging question. It would be just like that.
The water rippled with light. It really was very peaceful here.
From the direction of the throne, Pick could hear yelling. Must be more action. But things would settle. Things always settled. Pick pulled his legs toward him and studied the blue-blue sky. It was so clear. Like the finest morning. But no sun. Soft music was playing. Pick hadn’t noticed it before, but now he realized it had been playing since he had arrived. Melodic strings.
Pick heard fast steps coming toward him. He turned around to see the stout figure of Jesus running over the hill at full speed. Jesus jumped behind the boulder Pick was sitting on. Jesus looked up at Pick with serious eyes, shaking his head several times. Pick heard more steps, many more. He turned again to see a crowd of a dozen or so appear over the hill.
“Hey, you,” one of them yelled to Pick. “Have you seen Jesus?”
Pick could hear the heavy breathing of Jesus crouching behind him. “Yeah,” Pick said.
Picked pointed toward a distant wood of apple blossoms. “He went that way.”
“Thanks,” the man said. “Let’s get him.” The crowd ran off over another hill.
When they were gone, Pick leaned over. “The coast is clear,” he whispered.
Jesus peeked over the boulder and stood. He smiled and patted Pick’s back. That was the finest moment of Pick’s life.
Jesus pulled at his robe and started walking in the opposite direction of the pursuing crowd. For a moment Pick just watched. Then he quickly followed, keeping a good fifteen feet behind. Jesus glanced back once and smiled. Pick smiled back. Jesus walked with a strong, fluid stride. His legs were a good deal shorter than Pick’s, but he moved with speed.
After an hour or so of rolling hills, the land smoothed into a large field of waist-high yellow flowers. Jesus stepped through, letting his palms brush the top petals. Pick did the same. Past the field was a grove of aspens. Jesus reached out and placed his hands against the trees as he walked. Again, Pick followed his example. The bark was smooth and cool.
They had been walking for several hours but the sky had not changed its hue. Nor was there any breeze. The branches didn’t sway; the leaves didn’t rustle. Pick found the stillness eerie.
Pick hoped Jesus would take a break, but he kept walking, stopping only to pick something out of his sandals. Pick was barefoot, but the ground was soft and the temperature mild. Occasionally Jesus whistled. Besides that, everything was quiet.
At the far end of the aspen grove, near a rock cliff, Jesus turned to his right. He picked a few berries from a bush growing from the cliff. He ate a few and offered a handful to Pick. They were bitter, but Pick’s hunger helped him chew past that. Jesus dropped to his knees and Pick thought he was going to pray, but instead he crawled forward, past a curtain of moss and into a small opening in the stone face of the cliff.
Pick scrambled after him. It was a tight squeeze. Just enough room to crawl. It was dark in the cave. He could see nothing ahead of him, but he could hear Jesus whistling. After a bit of time, he could make out an opening.
Pick emerged into a well-lit hallway running perpendicular to the hole. No grass, no trees, no sky. Just florescent lights and hospital-white tiles that seemed to stretch in either direction for miles and miles. It was cold enough for Pick to see his breath. Jesus was already walking down the hall and Pick hurried after him, his bare soles slapping against the floor. Chilled gusts of air cut through his thin robe.
Up ahead Jesus had stopped and was facing the outer wall of the hallway. Wind was blowing his hair back and flakes of white were flurrying around him and sticking to his beard.
“Jesus?” Pick yelled.
Jesus stepped forward and out of sight. Pick sprinted and found an open door. Outside snow and wind whipped through the dusk half-light. Jesus walked into the wind.
“Jesus!” Pick yelled and stepped outside—the outside of an outside. Pick was dizzy and disorientated. The snow felt like broken glass to his feet, but Pick walked on after Jesus. He stepped on something metal and bent to pick it up. It was a crushed aluminum can. The label read molson ice canada’s finest.
Pick knew this feeling. Standing on the edge of a canyon, the fall a step away, toes over the lip, the world swaying with horrible possibility. He looked to his left. Stretching out into the distance stood a dozen or more huge gray domes, each larger than any building he had ever seen. Like the Superdome but expanded three times. He looked to his right and saw even more domes. He turned all the way around to see the massive dome he had stepped from. Pick’s blood was ice, his heart seizing up like a broken blender.
“Wait, Jesus!” he yelled, and ran a few steps toward him. Past Jesus, Pick could see faint headlights on a distant highway. “Jesus!”
Jesus stopped and turned. With slow steps he walked back to Pick.
“Thank you, thank you,” Pick whispered.
Jesus stood before him, spit already freezing into icicles on his mustache and beard. He placed a warm hand on Pick’s shivering arm.
“Please,” Pick said, “let’s go back in. This isn’t real. Go back in and I’ll follow you.”
Jesus smiled and looked down at Pick’s shoeless feet. Jesus shook his head and said something quiet and sad.
Pick shook his head, he didn’t understand, he couldn’t understand.
Jesus looked smaller in the outer world, almost frail, the wind whipping his robe like a broken kite. Pick had the strange thought that he could knock Jesus down if he wanted to. Jesus knelt down before Pick, and now Pick’s confusion was complete. Every knee shall bow . . . every knee but his. Never his. Jesus touched Pick’s bare feet. He then removed his own sandals and placed them, one by one, on Pick’s numb feet. He stood straight and smiled. Pick said nothing. The sandals were too small for his feet. Jesus again began walking to the far lights of the road.
Pick found his voice. “Wait. The ice . . . this is crazy. You can’t leave your kingdom.” Pick glanced back at the open door behind him and again to Jesus. He watched as the figure blended into the skyline. He could still catch up. He could still follow. He took a step. A gust of frozen air pushed past and stung his eyes. He squinted. It was almost dark now. Jesus was less than a shadow. He could only see the headlights slowly moving miles away. Pick filled his lungs with the cold air.
“Wait,” he said softly.
Pick turned and walked back to the door of the dome. He stepped through, immediately thankful for the warmth. Using both arms, Pick pushed the door closed. Even the sound of the wind was gone.
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