You may or may not have read a short allegory of mine entitled “Little Flock of Dreams.” It is that work which forms the premise for this one. You can find it here. It explains all of that which has gone before.
Sometimes we find that what we thought was absolute surrender was really an elaborate mirage—and that when we wake, the choice of freedom comes dearer than it did before. But freedom has already been paid for. We just need to be willing--willing to love, willing to trust, and willing to take the leap of faith into the arms that are already open and waiting for us.
Perhaps, as you read of my own to-be-continued experience, you will see yourself. Please also see the Shepherd. He’s pleading for you, just as He’s pleading for me. We both have a choice to make. Let’s not disappoint Him who loves us best.
Who I will be someday, in the place where I will end up, turns to the last page of the chapter, scans it, and leans back with a happy sigh. Finally started to Canaan, the Shepherd leading the way and the oasis of Imagination vanished from view behind. It was a perfect ending.
Except that it wasn’t an end. My future self eyes the next chapter suspiciously. I remember this: and it’s not something I like re-living. What horror, what absolute shame I felt! And yet, there are the words—my own memories of that terrible moment when I awoke and found it was all a dream.
No, not quite all: but all too much. I begin to read.
That moment I opened my eyes was one of extreme confusion. The leafy fronds of my oasis waved overhead. But I had seen it vanish into the desert sands. How could it have reappeared—out of thin air?
That’s when I noticed the altar. I thought that last dream had gone up in smoke. I thought I’d wept in the Shepherd’s arms. Maybe I did—it all seemed so real. But then, how could the altar still be here, with that final dream lying lifeless on it? And why were my fingers twined so tightly around the woolly coat of that pitiful dream?
I didn’t understand at all. What had happened? Where was I? And then I heard a soft sound behind me.
He was sitting there, on the ground. My gentle, patient Shepherd. His eyes looked sad, His face almost years older. I saw a light kindle in those loving eyes as my own bewildered ones rested on His face.
“You’re awake.” That was all He said. I heard that same hopefulness in His voice that I had grown to love.
“Have I been sleeping?” I looked around.
“For awhile now,” He replied.
“Are we in Canaan?” I felt ridiculous asking the question, but I couldn’t bear to make it any more direct.
“No, no.” He sighed a little. “We’re still here.”
“In the very same place?” I stared at the altar. “Is this the very same altar?”
“The very same, both.”
“Is this really my old dream?” I scrutinized it. “It looks different.”
“It’s changed some.” He rose and stood beside me and put a hand on the dream’s head. “Dreams do that sometimes, even after they die.”
I fell silent. What had happened?
“Didn’t I burn it…?” My voice was very small. I felt very small as I said it.
“It got fairly alight, yes.” The Shepherd nodded. He stood close to me, but I now noticed that His hand rested on the altar, not on my shoulder, as it had done so many times before. “But the fires of surrender will blow out in the merest fraction of a second if a regretful hand touches them.”
“But I don’t remember doing that!” I cried. I would’ve torn away from the altar, but something seemed to hold me chained to it. My fingers were hopelessly entangled in that dry wool. “I watched the oasis disappear!”
“It did disappear, briefly. But when once you touched the fires, you fell asleep.” The Shepherd’s eyes filled with tears. “And as soon as your head dropped, seedlings sprouted and water seeped up from the ground once more. Sometimes our oases are resilient.”
Tears streamed down my face. “But I want to go. I don’t want to stay here. Why didn’t You wake me?”
“I called you,” He said, looking deep into my eyes. I averted them, ashamed that the voice I loved had been unheard in my deep slumber. “But there is a law written, about these fires. I am not at liberty to use force to waken. I can only use Love.”
“Then why did I waken now?”
“I was singing.”
I felt a thrill of hope. “Then it was your voice that brought me back after all.”
“My Child, I have been sitting there in the same attitude for many months—and I have been singing to you the entire time.” He pointed at the spot on the mossy oasis floor where He had been.
I turned away as much as I could. He leaned closer. “But you have finally heard Me, and have shaken off the stupor that comes from touching the fire. Won’t you come away with Me now?”
“I suppose I can just walk away and leave everything as it is.” My voice sounded harsh and bitter. Where did that come from? It wasn’t His fault I’d been here like this for so long! Why was I taking it out on Him?
“You are free to walk away—it is a choice.”
“Perhaps You aren’t aware that I can’t!” Angry words began to tumble out. “I can’t move, I can’t disentangle my fingers from this wretched dream, and I can’t make the oasis disappear again. Why do You ask so much of me?” I knew as I said it it wasn’t true. He had asked so little of me—where, oh, where were these hateful sentiments coming from? Why couldn’t I stop?
He stood there quietly as I raged at Him. When at last my voice tired itself out, I fell weeping onto the altar. I knew now I had made it ten thousand times worse—but what did it matter? I couldn’t free myself. He had admitted He wasn’t allowed to force me away. There was no hope.
When at last I dared to look up at Him again, He smiled. It wasn’t the full, beautiful smile I remembered from before. It was a sad smile; but I could still see hope in His face. He still believed. Couldn’t I?
“I’m sorry,” I whispered.
The smile remained. “You are forgiven, My Child.”
“I want to be free.”
“Do you truly want it?”
“Yes, I truly do.”
He looked at the dream lying on the altar and my own form, half-draped across the stones. He bowed His head for what seemed like a very long time. When He looked at me again, I could see anxiety in His features.
“Freedom always comes at a price, My Child. And each successive freedom becomes more and more difficult to obtain: not because it is any less willingly given, but because it is harder for prisoners to reach the light. Do you understand?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“When you reached your hands into the fire of surrender, it put you to sleep. It rebuilt your oasis and, as it were, turned the tables back again. As you have slept, your dream has changed some—but it still must be offered up.”
I nodded. “I suppose I can understand that.”
“What you may not realize is that something else must now go with it.” His shoulders trembled a little.
I looked around me. “What else could I possibly put on the altar?”
I’m sure my face never looked so stunned in my life. I made a pitiful spectacle, standing there chained to this altar by my own choice. And now my Shepherd was telling me the only way out of the mess I had made was to climb onto the altar and be the sacrifice?
“You must be joking,” I stammered.
He only shook His head.
“You mean—you mean I have to be sacrificed? My own person?” Terror clutched at my heart. “You mean I’ve got to lie on this thing and let the fire consume me?”
“You said you wanted freedom.” The Shepherd brushed His hand across the altar’s top. “From where you now stand, that is the way.”
I burst into tears again. This was incomprehensible. Memories had started to come back—and yes, now I could vaguely remember thrusting my hands into the fire, as if to snatch my dream out. But then everything became muddled. I thought I had watched the ashes float up, and seen the oasis vanish into the sand. I realized now it must’ve been a vision brought on by the effects of my heavy sleep. But to burn on the altar—myself? For a mistake made in a moment?
“I never can,” I sobbed. “You know I fear the fire. I fear it with all my heart. I can never lie in its very bosom: not to save my life.”
Through my tears I saw the nail-scarred hands grip the stones of the altar until the knuckles went white. The voice came through my agony, so intense and pleading that I paused. “Please—you must! Oh, you must!”
“How could you ask me to do that?” I cried, choking on my own words. “I thought You loved me. And yet You would rather see me ashes upon the altar than here, in flesh and blood?”
“You don’t understand,” He said, tears streaming down His own cheeks. “You can never be separated from that altar now until you’ve offered yourself on it. Canaan is unattainable until you have made the choice to be free.”
“I thought You loved me!” The accusation rang afresh from my lips.
“I do.” He bent His head. “With all My heart. Do you think I would be here still if I didn’t?”
I swallowed another sob. He had a point.
“You are the most precious thing in the world to Me,” He went on, beautiful voice catching. “Do you think I would give you up to the fire without cause?”
“What sort of love is it that gives its dearest treasures into the fire?”
“The only kind of love really worth having.”
I’d heard Him say things like that before. I’d believed Him back then. But now, when it concerned me, myself; I wasn’t so sure. I lifted my gaze to His face.
“Isn’t there any other way?” I pleaded.
He shook His head. “None.”
I stared at my hands, veritably chained to the altar via that wretched dream. Now I had a choice. My Shepherd was there at my elbow, pleading with tears for me to burn so I could go with Him. And yet my heart quailed at the thought of the fire, the thought of the pain, the surrender—and the fear of ending it all. Did I want freedom enough to die for it?
How long I stood there, I know not. All I could see was the altar, as if it were growing larger by the minute, and as it were a huge fire raging atop it. Of course, the fire wasn’t there—but my heart feared it, and had conjured up an imaginary one for me to shrink from.
The Shepherd stood quietly beside me. He didn’t speak now. It was as if He knew this choice I had to make on my own. He had already done His part.
“I’m afraid to die,” I finally whispered.
He smiled tenderly. “I have seen but few who weren’t.”
“Have you ever met anyone who didn’t fear the fire?” I turned to Him now, trying to find a reason to be brave.
My heart fell. “Of course. The fire only consumes things in Canaan, not hearts and souls and bodies.” I knew I sounded sarcastic, but I was disappointed.
“Oh, but there you would be wrong, My Child.” The Shepherd circled the altar, tracing the stones with a finger. “My servant Abraham laid his only child on the altar.”
I stared. “A child?”
“His only child,” the Shepherd repeated.
“How could he?” I couldn’t comprehend this.
“Because it was what was asked of him—the price of freedom.”
“What about the child?” I pressed. “Did it not have a right to life? Could it not have been better used than as a sacrifice: or is the Prince of Canaan so arbitrary that He must have anything that His subjects hold dear?” I was surprised at my words, more so that they were asked in honesty, not bitterness.
The Shepherd paused directly opposite me. “Do you remember what I first told you of Canaan?”
I tried to remember. It seemed so long ago. “You said the people offered up morning and evening sacrifices of their best,” I recalled, speaking slowly.
“And what else?”
I couldn’t remember anything else.
“They offer up all they have, and they are blessed,” the Shepherd said, reciting the words as if by heart. “Now, do you remember what I told you of My own altar?”
I shook my head. I truly didn’t.
“I offered up My dream on an altar.” The Shepherd motioned to the cold stones in between us. “And directly I had offered it up, it was given back to me, brighter and more glorious than it could’ve ever been otherwise.”
“Do you mean to tell me that sacrifice—burning—makes our dreams and lives more beautiful?” I shook my head. “I don’t see how, especially if I’m dead.”
“Do you trust Me?”
I looked at the Shepherd. Did I trust Him? I trusted Him before, so why did I feel so hesitant now? He had proved Himself a true Friend, one who would never hurt me or lead me astray. Couldn’t I trust Him in the flames as well as on the road?
“Maybe I don’t,” I finally admitted. “But I want to be free.”
“Do you love Me?”
My eyes filled with tears now. “Yes, I do.”
“That is all it takes, then.” The Shepherd motioned to the altar.
Every limb trembling, I tried to pull myself onto the altar. Tears streamed down my face. “I’m too weak.”
Suddenly, while still struggling to get up, I received a boost. I found myself sitting atop the altar, right next to my dead dream. The Shepherd stood behind me. He looked far happier than I thought He would.
“Are you ready?” He produced a flaming brand.
I shifted, crouching low over my dead dream, digging my fingers tighter into the wool and bracing myself for the pain. “Yes.” My body trembled like a leaf in the wind.
One corner of the wood sprang alight. I began to weep as I thought of all I had wanted to do with my life, the places I wanted to go, the things I wanted to see, the people I wanted to love before my time came. And here I was, giving it all up—every last bit of it—just to please the Shepherd.
The flames grew hotter, drew closer, but my mind seemed far away. All my memories, the good and the bad, danced across my imagination, and I cried more. It was too much—I suddenly knew I couldn’t do it on my own. Suddenly I realized that if left to my own devices, I would extinguish the fires of surrender again—and who knew if there would be any return from them if extinguished twice.
“Help!” I cried. “I must go through, I must!”
As the flames swept upwards and began to engulf me, I suddenly felt a pair of arms wrap around me tightly. My head was pressed against a heavily-beating heart and I felt a peace like nothing I had ever known.
For a little while, the fire stormed all around, a wall of glowing embers. But then I realized what was happening—my Shepherd, my Friend, had leaped into the fire with me!
“No!” I began to cry. “You mustn’t! It is my place! You’ll die!”
He didn’t seem to hear me. In the midst of the roaring fire, I heard a gentle whisper. “Do you trust Me?”
“Stop!” I shrieked. “You can’t die! You just can’t!”
I felt myself fainting. Surely the end had come. What despair filled my heart as I realized my Shepherd was dying too. Then my eyes closed and I remembered no more.
My eyes blinked open. I was unsure of where I was at first—I concluded I must be dead, but how could I have my eyes open if that were the case?
Above me, there was a starry night sky. “I never thought I would see that again,” I said. Then I suddenly sat bolt upright. “I survived!” I cried, examining my hands, my face, my legs for signs of the fire. There were none!
I didn’t understand this at all. How could I have gone through the fire and come out alive? I turned to ask the Shepherd about it, but He was nowhere to be seen.
And then it hit me, like a blast of rough wind. The memory of those strong arms, the beating heart, the gentle whisper in the fire. My entire body became ice as I turned toward the altar. My little dream had gone, consumed by the flames…and so had the Shepherd.
I collapsed against the cold stones, scarcely able to breathe. All that remained was a pile of ashes. I had lived—He had died.
I buried my face in those ashes and sobbed. How could it be? I deserved death, not Him. What would Canaan do without their Prince? What would I do without my Shepherd? I didn’t understand: I only knew that I had killed Him, the One I had loved. The One who loved me. I was a murderer, a selfish, blood-stained murderer.
I lifted my face from the altar, streaked with grime and tears. And that’s when I noticed the edge of something white sticking out of the ash.
I pulled it out. “The Shepherd’s robe.” To my surprise, it had nary a stain or mark upon it. And it seemed to flicker, as if it had consumed the fire rather than the other way around.
Suddenly, I heard a gentle whisper just behind me. “My Child.”
I whirled around, heart leaping to my throat. Yet all I saw was desert.
“My Child.” The whisper came again, just behind me. I whirled about again. Still, nothing but desert.
“Where are You?” I cried.
“Be still,” the Voice said. “I am with you. I will be with you always, even to the end of the world.”
“But I killed You!” I cried, clutching the white robe tighter.
“This is the true Sacrifice,” the Voice told me. “No greater love hath any than a man that lays down his life for his friends.”
“But where will I go? What will I do?” I continued to speak to the sky, and the Voice continued to answer me, always just behind me.
“I have gone to prepare a place for you, My Child. But never fear—I will be with you. You must come to Me; and I will in no wise cast you out.”
“Come to You? To Canaan?”
There was no answer this time. “Of course,” I answered myself, “to Canaan.” A perplexing thought suddenly crossed my mind. “But how will I get there? I don’t know the way!”
“You will hear a Voice behind you, saying ‘this is the way, walk ye in it,’ when you turn to the right hand and when you turn to the left,” the Voice replied.
I looked down at the Shepherd’s robe. “And this?”
“It is the gold tried in the fire, the eye salve that you might see, the garment white, without spot or wrinkle. It is yours, without money and without price.”
I realized now that my other garments had been consumed in the fire. I slipped His robe over my head, feeling a sense of awe at my utter unworthiness.
“Go now.” The Voice seemed to be fading away. “Remember, I have loved you with an everlasting love. I gave Myself that you might be with Me where I am. Hasten Home, My Child. I will be waiting.”
Then the Voice went away. All around me was desert, the oasis at last gone for good. The altar stood beside me, silent and still. Atop it lay one last thing—a long, straight stick that the fire had hardened. I took it down. Everyone knows that a pilgrim needs a staff.
I faced the altar one last time. “Dear Shepherd, forgive me,” I murmured. “Guide me, protect me, bring me safely Home.” With that I turned about and took one step in the direction of Canaan.
And when I did, the altar cracked into a thousand pieces and fell, to be buried forever beneath the desert sand.
My journey isn’t over.
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down His life for his friends.”