Patmos: Chapter One
Most Sundays that I am home, I sleep in as long as possible. But this Sunday had a mind of its own. A violent storm had raged through the night, and I hardly slept at all, which made me angry, as I needed rest after a two-week tour lecturing on theology. A little after six in the morning a strange silence—even more frightening than the storm—awakened me. I could feel the invisible war starting again. Although I had personally helped hundreds of people rise in their wars and find serious help, even victory, there was something unseen at work in my own life—dastardly evil that had a way of kicking my butt. I could see it coming like a dark cloud at sea moving toward me, but there was nothing I could do to stop it.
I knew sleep had vanished, so I decided to get up, throw on my khakis and a T-shirt, brew some coffee, and get the paper. I smiled thinking of how my wife, Mary, enjoyed real coffee—100% arabica, she would say—but I loathed waiting for it to brew. It pushed my impatience button, like when the meter on the gas pump suddenly slows to a crawl for the last few dollars when you have prepaid. I vowed long ago to never prepay for gas, simply because I hated that feeling of being hindered. Somehow hindrance summarized my life. How many times had I gotten on a roll in my search for answers only to feel some damnable, unknown parachute open and jerk me back?
The blue flashing light of the coffeemaker startled me out of my thoughts. I pushed the button to start the brewing and dashed out of the kitchen to get the paper. I couldn’t bear the insufferable wait. Wouldn’t it be great if you could text the coffeemaker and it would do the rest, and then it would text you when the coffee was ready?
As I turned the corner into the foyer, I expected to see our front door, but what I saw was as shocking as something from the book of Revelation and the wild visions of the Apostle John.
Strange lights are not unusual around our door. It has twenty-eight panes of beveled glass, and sometimes in the winter the bevels will catch the sunlight and create a few colors. But on this morning the light hitting the bevels created hundreds of flashing prisms, all moving and passing in and out of one another as if alive, generating a spectacle of dazzling light and color a few feet in front of me.
Ever since I was a boy, prisms have fascinated me, but I’ve never seen or even heard about multiple prisms coalescing to create a larger one. But that is exactly what appeared between me and my door. Pulsating with myriads of colors, rainbows within rainbows, it all mysteriously joined together into one living canopy. I stood still, mesmerized by the vision. And then the canopy started moving—toward me.
I braced for some kind of impact, but when the canopy wrapped around me, nothing happened and I didn’t feel anything at all. Then the world that I knew instantly vanished. Like someone had suddenly unplugged my house from existence. My house and all of planet earth, everything I knew, was totally gone. In a split second I found myself alone in complete darkness.
“Oh, God,” I screamed. What just happened? Did I die? Am I dead? Where am I? What the hell is going on? I checked my face, my head and chest, and then my body to see if I was still there—or here. My mind raced, but I was unable to think concretely.
Fear is not the right word. I have been afraid a hundred times in the woods at night, lost in briars with coyotes howling and strange sounds creaking in the forest, but there was always a sense of otherness that gave me some semblance of context. But in the unplugged universe of darkness that had suddenly taken over my life, I was alone, and there was nothing to give me a frame of reference: no dangling vines, no leaves rustling in the wind, no crickets chirping, no frogs croaking, not even a mosquito buzzing. One minute I was headed to my front door, and the next I was alone in a blackness so intense it seemed alive.
As odd as it may sound, I thought of a Scottish oatcake. The thought now makes me laugh, but that’s what hit me. Understanding why didn’t take long: the silent, dark world I had somehow entered was so devoid of everything that it was without taste, and compared to the humidity of Mississippi, it was as dry as sawdust. It cried out for something, anything—which even at the moment struck me as exceedingly strange given that my apparent entrance had been through so much beautiful color and light.
Such thoughts lasted only an instant as the darkness, which I swear was moving, pressed in upon me from all sides as if its intent was to swallow me alive. I could see nothing at all.
I panicked. Where’s my door? What happened to my house? Where’s my family? Confusion and terror, cross-fertilized with frustration if not outrage, rose from my insides as I realized my utter powerlessness. I didn’t know what to do, which way to turn, or if doing or turning even mattered. It felt as if horror itself had morphed into an entity choking my very life. Maybe I was dead.
“Lord Jesus,” I yelled, “what are you doing? This is not fair. You promised life, and I have searched since my youth—you know I have. Who on earth has worked harder? And this is the grand payoff?”
I heard nothing in response, no word, no sound, nothing, only the hideous silence of isolation in the blackest darkness, a nothingness I wouldn’t wish even on the self- righteous Pharisees in my life.
“I have turned over every freaking leaf,” I shouted. “For thirty years—my whole adult life—I wrestled my guts out trying to find answers. I carefully studied theology, even studied the early church and history and psychology, and I have been to therapy, in case you don’t remember—therapy!—and now this joke of an ending? Is this the kingdom you announced? What else do you want from me? Tell me! You promised the river of living water, joy unspeakable, and I’ve scoured the denominations, even the charismatics for crying out loud, endlessly searching, but finding no real answers, and now my life ends in this nothingness? Is this all there is? Are you kidding me?”
I seethed with disgust as half a century of buried anger spewed from my heart.
Fuming at the injustice of what was happening, I fell to my knees in desolation, emotionally spent, exhausted by the decades of words and definitions, of what was now clear to me, nothing more than empty ideas, the hollow forms and illusions and false promises of religion.
“I refuse to go out this way,” I protested. “There must be more. This cannot be the end.” Whatever is happening, my life will not—I will not—end here. I will find my way home.
As I sat in the forsaken dark trying to figure out what to do, I noticed a hint of gray in the far distance in front of me, like a light that was trying to be born but couldn’t quite make it. Hope flickered in my heart but quickly died as my brain leapt to the thought of a train racing toward me in a tunnel. Perfect, I thought. After all this damnable soul-searching, to be flattened now by a mindless train. But there were no tracks, no sounds or vibrations. I noticed the weird smell of rotting cucumbers floating in the black void. I squinted, as if that could have helped me smell better, or see better for that matter, but it didn’t.
I reached down to touch the ground with my left hand. Feeling fine powder like moondust, I said, half aloud and half to myself: I must be on the dark side of the moon. Unlike all my previous shouts swallowed by the void, this mumble echoed several times, so I figured I must be—now, if I wasn’t before—in a cave. Perhaps I’m in Arizona, and the train is the 3:10 to Yuma, I thought, remembering the movie and desperately trying to bring a touch of levity to this most surreal moment in my life.
Determined not to disappear on my family and die alone, I rose and eased my way forward, instinctively toward the gray light. As I did, the light grew wider and seemed brighter. From a distance came sounds of marching, like a band practicing but with no instruments. The footsteps of the band got a little louder as I moved toward the light, but I still heard no drums or whistles or shouts.
It was so dark I had to move slowly; I made it only ten feet before I tripped on a rock—I think—and fell flat on my face. As I rolled over on my back, I felt pressure on my shoulders and legs pushing me down, like Gulliver being tied to the sand against his will, but something within me fought to rise.
Pushing myself up and dusting off, I shuffled toward the gray light. Like a zombie I inched forward, both arms held out in front of me, scared to death that at any moment I could fall headlong into an unimaginable abyss, as if where I was wasn’t scary enough.
Eventually I made it to the mouth of what I discovered to be, in fact, a cave. Overcome with unspeakable relief, I strained to see as my eyes gradually adjusted to the sunlight. Before me lay an utterly treeless world as barren as Mars and as wide as the ocean. It looked like someone had filled the Superdome with orange dirt and then blasted it with a hundred high-powered water jets. The sky was Carolina blue, but everything else was orange. For as far as I could see or imagine, dramatic cliffs and hills and ravines and rocks littered the landscape, and they were all orange. I thought of the “Song of Moses” and his “howling waste of wilderness.”
I stood speechless and immobilized until the sound of ocean waves broke the spell. Looking around to find the waves, I realized that the mouth of my cave was in the side of a cliff. Only a path, three or four feet wide, separated me from a serious fall; above me rose thirty feet of sheer rock. Where is this place? Maybe I’m in purgatory, I thought. Or perhaps Australia.
The marching sound re-imposed itself on my consciousness; it was getting louder. I stood as still as a church mouse, trying to get a bead on the noise, when from out of nowhere a hand grabbed my right shoulder.
Before I could even scream, a voice behind me cried out, “Romans. Follow me now!”
I turned to catch the frame of a silver-haired man with an oil lamp in his left hand.
“Quickly! This way,” he said with authority, motioning me with his right hand. When I realized the old man was leading me back into the cave and its darkness, I froze. “Wait a damn minute. What the hell is going on here?”
Without turning around he proclaimed, “Die without mercy, or follow me and live.”
“Right behind you,” I called out before thinking. Whoever these Romans are, I figured, I can outrun this old man and buy myself some time if need be.
As we moved with haste through the cave, I heard water bubbling in the distance, not a river but definitely more than a trickle. I tried to take mental notes of everything, but it was useless.
Eventually the old man turned into a room to the left and snuffed out his lamp. I caught a glimpse of his long beard and what looked like wineskins and a large basket before all was dark.
My breathing was heavy in the cool air. Again there was not a trace of humidity. I could hear him panting about three feet in front of me, but I could see nothing. If something goes sideways, I thought, I think I can find my way back to the mouth of the cave and at least to sunshine.
“They won’t find us in here,” he said calmly and with remarkable assurance.
“Sir, only God knows why I followed you back into this forsaken cave, but this charade has to stop. Who are you? Where are we? How did I get here? I am in no mood for any more mystery.”
He took in a long breath and sighed. “All will be clear in time, young man. For now you need to know that you are safe here with me. Trust me.”
“Trust? How can I trust an old man who appeared out of thin air in a cave in the middle of nowhere? I have no freaking idea how I got here, let alone who you are. I managed to find a little light, and now you have led me into the darkness.”
“We are safe,” he declared. Then enigmatically added, “The light shines in the darkness.”
Having no clue what he meant, I sat in the black taking inventory, my body shaking as the double shot of adrenaline wore off. At least I’m not alone. This old man poses no real threat to me, and he obviously knows his way around this darkness. That could prove helpful. For some reason he has shown goodwill toward me. But I want answers.
His voice pierced the void. “Where are you from?”
“Me, I’m from Brandon,” I replied. At least I know the answer to that question. “But the question is not where I’m from; the question is how did I get here, who are you, and what do you mean by Romans?”
He lit his oil lamp and slowly and confidently rose in front of me. Several shadows bounced off the wall behind him. My first thought was wisdom, as I gazed at him. He was old as dirt and short and slight of build, but I could tell that in his day he had been strong—the lean type. (I had always wanted to be lean, but my Scottish ancestry had other thoughts.) His hands were still strong and larger than I expected, given his height. The old man’s hair was long and white, almost glistening, as was his beard—both in stark contrast to the black of the cave. Crisscrossing his face were deep, ancient lines, each begging to tell its tale in the story of what surely had been an adventurous life. Not a trace of sadness appeared in his face. His eyes—framed by crow’s-feet and eyebrows so bushy they had a life of their own—flickered with untamed intensity. That was the main thing that struck me: his deep brown eyes, vivid with light. They had that seasoned look of long settled knowledge.
Clothed in a robe, he stood erect in the confidence of a vindicated visionary. A belt of well-worn leather, darkened by service, wrapped his waist. At some point in the past, I thought, the robe must have been white. Over his right shoulder hung an old brown satchel, obviously repaired a dozen times in the course of his adventures.
Something about this old man calmed me down. “Thank you,” I said. “I’m shaken to the roots and terribly confused by what is going on here—”
“Aren’t we all?” he interrupted. He rubbed his long beard and smiled. I noticed that he didn’t have all his teeth and that most of those he still possessed had been whittled down through the years. But his smile made me think of a sanctuary. As bizarre as this world seemed, wherever and whatever it was, I felt safe. I was light-years from comfortable, but I was safe. He felt safe.
Still trembling, I managed to fake a laugh. “Sir, I was headed to my door at home when some weird stuff happened with lights and prisms, and I ended up in this cave.”