I am about to embark on what will likely be the most important blog post I ever write. Unlike most of my blog posts which have no higher purpose other than to unravel my thoughts about my own life, I sense that this post could change other people’s lives. And after this blog post, when I go back to rambling about my life, I get the sense that I will be referring back to this post a lot. While most other blog posts were written because I wanted to share them, I felt a strange stirring inside, a sense that I NEEDED to write this blog post. If I neglected to write it, I would be brushing off an order from God. So my prayer is that God will give me the right words to do justice to the incredible insights I have received lately, and that this joy will be contagious and transform other lives.
In June 2015, Dad, Gilbert and I were taking an evening walk when a neighbor who is one of Jehovah’s Witnesses was out walking her dog too. I don’t think I had met this neighbor before this, but we hit it off and became fast friends. She was curious and amazed about how I managed life as a blind person, and asked if she could come over to my house a few days later to chat more, and if I was interested in a bible study. I said yes to this, and was excited about the prospect of learning more about this faith. Even as a small child, something intrigued me about Jehovah’s Witnesses. Maybe it was the genuine compassion and interest they showed in me when I ran to the door out of curiosity, or maybe I was enamored by their passion and dedication to their cause. There must be something special about a religion that inspires people to go door-to-door talking to strangers about it. When I was older and had picked up a few more tidbits about this religion, including the fact that they didn’t celebrate birthdays or holidays like Christmas, I would find myself feeling disheartened when my parents, and one time my grandma would beat me to the door and be very polite and courteous to them, while also making it very clear they were not interested in learning about the faith. I wanted to be more open-minded.
Almost every Saturday for the next two years, this neighbor and another witness would come to my house and we slowly studied the organization’s introductory book “What Does the Bible Really Teach?” I also went to several Tuesday night bible studies at their kingdom hall, and even attended the memorial for the death of Christ in 2016, which is their version of Good Friday, except that they observe it on the first full moon of spring, no matter what day of the week it is. I did not end up converting because there were some theological things I didn’t agree with, which I will talk about in a future post. But one chapter of the book filled me with a deep sense of joy and anticipation that I had never experienced before. This chapter taught that when we die, we will not go to heaven. Instead, we will just be asleep in a sense, but when Christ returns, everyone all through human history will be resurrected and those who follow Him will live forever on a paradise earth, free of all the sin, sickness, trouble and even disabilities that plague this current system. Elmbrook Church is a bible-believing church of course, and they do believe that Christ would return and this troubled world would not be that way forever, but Elmbrook church, like most mainstream Christian churches, focuses on how to live a Christ-centered life in the here and now. When eternity is discussed, it is usually discussed in an abstract, churchy way. To be shown verses I had never paid attention to which showed we would not be spending eternity in some abstract heaven in the sky, but here on a beautifully restored Earth free of sin and trouble was exhilarating.
Years ago I heard an old country song by Red Foley called “Peace in the Valley.” The second verse says, “The bear will be gentle, and the wolf will be tame. And the lion shall lay down by the lamb. And the beast from the wild will be led by a child, and I’ll be changed from this creature that I am.” I always felt compelled to stop what I was doing and drink in this song when it came on the radio, and it was one of the first songs I looked for to download on iTunes when I got an iPad for Christmas in 2011. It turned out that I think God had been trying to speak to me for years through this song because one Saturday in our bible study, I gasped as I realized that the words to this beautiful song were lifted right from Isaiah 11-6:9. I was absolutely giddy, and the witnesses agreed that God had been speaking to me. I played the song for them, and they enjoyed it to. When our bible study for that day had ended and the witnesses left, my parents and I decided to go out for lunch at Chipotle. I don’t usually share what we talked about in bible study because while my parents are open to me being open-minded and studying with them, they were not interested in learning about this faith themselves and I tried to respect that. So when they would ask how bible study was, I would just reply with a cursory, “it was good” or “it was interesting.” But that Saturday, I was so giddy I couldn’t resist launching into an excited tangent in the car on the way to Chipotle about the life to come on a paradise earth. But before I could finish, Dad shut the conversation down with a firm “that’s just one interpretation.” Maybe he was right. I was allowing myself to get a one-sided interpretation of the bible, skipping the critical analysis recommended by all my college professors. But oh how the child in me wanted this interpretation to be true. At the time I was in the thick of my anxiety and feelings of hopelessness, working full-time in a job I had no idea how to do, and this bible study infused me with new hope and joy that I desperately needed at the time. So I decided that I was going to have the heart of a child, something Jesus encourages, and quietly embrace this interpretation. With this decision made, I began to let my imagination go wild and think about what I was most looking forward to on a paradise earth. This decision spawned many amazing and thrilling conversations with the witnesses on Saturdays, but I was careful to keep these thoughts to myself around everyone else. One Tuesday when I went to a kingdom hall bible study last summer, everyone was encouraged to do what I had been doing, and again I came home giddy. My dad noticed this giddiness when I walked in, but I didn’t tell him why this time. I was not going to let myself be deflated again.
In August 2017, I stopped studying with the Jehovah’s Witnesses and had what was for me a very difficult conversation about how I didn’t agree with everything Jehovah’s Witnesses believed, and didn’t want to leave Elmbrook because God has spoken to me there to. But we are still friends, and I still think about the coming paradise earth a lot. Since I love music and sing in choir, I noticed that other songs, especially country songs, would trigger thoughts about the paradise earth. For example, one day, my parents and I were watching a movie and during the closing credits, they played Gene Autry’s rendition of “Don’t Fence me in.” “oh give me land lots of land under starry skies above. Don’t fence me in. Let me ride through the wide open country that I love. Don’t fence me in.” Hearing that it occurred to me that in this current system I sometimes feel fenced in by my blindness. It is not safe for me to leave the house without a dog, cane or person, and even with these things, I don’t feel totally free. In unfamiliar settings, a sighted person is in the driver’s seat, directing me where to go, even when I am using a cane or dog. But through this song it was as if God was telling me that in the new system, I will not be fenced in. With sight restored, I could run out the door all by myself and just wander wide open woodlands, going wherever the spirit leads me. And maybe I could even find a horse to ride to the top of a hill where I could appreciate for the first time what sighted people mean when they talk about having a stunning view.
Then one Sunday this past February, I was in a weekly apologetics class offered at Elmbrook when the instructor recommended that everyone, especially millennials read this piece. This article was very thought-provoking for me, someone who is a millennial, and I will talk more about it in a future post. But after reading the piece, I was just exploring the rest of the website as I sometimes like to do, and found out that the author of that piece had also written some books, one of which caught my attention. The book was called All Things New: Heaven, Earth, and the Restoration of Everything You Love. This sounded like it could be a book about the new system, the paradise earth! To my delight, it was available on Bookshare, so I downloaded it, and indeed, it was about the new system to come! John Eldredge called it the Restoration. To hear a mainstream Christian thought leader, embrace and write a whole book on the new system, a topic that I have never really heard pastors talk about, was refreshing and thrilling, because I felt like I now had renewed permission to think about and hope for this new system. Eldredge points out in this book that ever since we lost the garden of Eden, we are “like cut flowers.” We appear to be fine, but deep down, we ache for something, and we cannot place what it is. We find fleeting happiness in a new car, or the next adventure or dinner out, but this happiness doesn’t last. When I read this, I think I gasped to myself as a post I wrote back in 2013 came back to me. As a child, I would have these bizarre obsessions about nontraditional people like dogsled racers and pioneers who live off the land. I couldn’t understand why these things fascinated me so much as I wasn’t by any means an outdoorsy person who liked rugged living, unless I just admired them because they bucked the status quo and did something different rather than just being good little soldiers and settling for boring office jobs that didn’t fulfill them. While I didn’t actually want to live like a pioneer or race sled dogs across the wilderness of Alaska, I longed to figure out what a counter-cultural life would look like for me. I wasn’t aware of the Restoration back in third grade, but even then, that was what I was looking for. Eldredge also says in a later chapter, “most humans are profoundly thwarted in their calling here because of wounding, assault, envy, or circumstances that would never let them fly.” Due to a severe recession that was in full swing when I graduated from college, combined with a changing journalism field that was doing more with less and thus no longer felt welcoming to me, I have indeed felt thwarted in my calling by circumstances that would not let me fly. Because of this reality, Eldredge says that for most humans, their jobs range from disappointing to oppressive. While I am blessed to have a job that is not oppressive, it would be a lie to say I haven’t felt disappointed, even now with my part-time schedule. I am content enough in my job. All aspects of the job are accessible for me, and the people I work with are wonderful, but it is definitely not my “calling.” I often ache for, feel as though I was made for, something more. In the thick of my anxiety working full-time, I remember grasping at straws after work. I looked at writing classes, graduate schools in public policy, a class I did well in and enjoyed in college, and even whether it would be feasible to start a food truck selling healthy soups or salads. But the writing classes and graduate schools didn’t stir me with enough passion to go through with the rigors of applying for and paying for these programs, and my parents said (rightly) that a food truck would not be feasible with my disabilities. At that time, this lack of clarity, this feeling that my dreams were constantly being thwarted filled me with a sense of hopelessness. Now I realize I was longing for the restoration, when we will all be unencumbered and able to reach our fullest potential.
This post is getting long, so I will discuss practical implications for how these insights could shape my life in the here and now in the next post. But I want to close this post with an exercise Eldredge recommends everyone do, and which I had already been doing with the witnesses. I am going to share the first three things I would love to do at the Restoration. Thinking about the Restoration in this personal, practical way makes this hope more tangible, and as I will elaborate more on in the next post, this tangible hope will make this current life seem less hopeless, even if our circumstances don’t change. I would love to hear about your own dreams in the comments as well.
First, I would love to take a walk with Jesus, the way my dad and I enjoy taking walks on summer nights in this world. Jesus and I are similar in personality in that we both like quiet and solitude, so we may spend long periods just walking in silence, just enjoying the breeze on our faces and the sounds of birds, but we would also have deep conversations about why events in my life unfolded the way they did, what I could have done differently, or when He was intervening and I didn’t even notice. Then, I would love to strike out on the most epic vacation ever, one where I am in the driver’s seat. It would include running or riding on horseback through wide open country, as well as going to Africa to see and even pet lions or elephants which I have heard described as magnificent, but right now I can only listen to someone reading a plaquerd about these animals at the zoo because I cannot see and they are too dangerous to touch. The trip would also include sitting around a fire or table with people freely enjoying bread again because Celiac Disease will be no more. Finally, I would love to be a singer in a huge choir of thousands, maybe even millions of voices, many of whom would be people who would love to sing now but are too busy with the troubles and demands of this world to have time for choir. This choir would not struggle to raise money to stay afloat like so may choirs in this world, and since everyone would be free of health issues and the stresses of unfulfilling day jobs, they would come to rehearsal and not be exhausted or pre-occupied, and thus would sing with a more genuine joy.
I am sure more thoughts will come to mind, and I look forward to sharing them as they take shape in future posts. And as I said, I will discuss practical implications for what these thoughts mean for the here and now in my next post. But in the meantime, if you are feeling discouraged, thwarted in pursuing your dreams, hopeless, or just longing for something more, rather than succumbing to hopelessness, or grasping at straws like I have done, or looking for escape in a silly television show or the next dinner out, I urge you to start dreaming instead of the Restoration.