Chapter 11 Visiting Zion
Thomas lifted his head from his pillow to see an angel bringing in a bowl full of steaming porridge and a glass of fruit juice. Thomas’ favourite. He never knew what it would be each day, but the food was always delicious.
The angel gently placed the breakfast on the table near the balcony. The doors had remained open all night allowing for the sweet fragrant breeze to pass over Thomas as he slept. As usual the sky was dancing with colours, decorating the walls of the bedroom with a slowly evolving kaleidoscope of orange, yellow and delicate pink.
The angel stood for a second, looking at Thomas. This was unusual, so Thomas glanced back at the angel and smiled with a look of intrigue.
“Sorry, but are you Thomas, the apostle?” asked the angel.
“I understand that’s what some call me,” said Thomas, sitting up in his bed to pay more attention.
“Oh wow… sorry – it’s just a pleasure to meet you.”
The angel’s awkwardness surprised Thomas.
“We talked of you quite a bit back when Jesus was on Old Earth. Some of us admired your integrity.”
“Really?” said Thomas.
“Well, the consensus was that you were a good example of someone who said how they really felt about things. Didn’t just go along with everyone else. I think it took some guts to say you weren’t sure until you had proof. Anyway, I must be going. Pleasure to meet you!”
The angel went on its way.
It wasn’t unusual to talk with angels. They were always around in Zion, helping to keep everything going. They brought food and clothes to those who were staying in Zion on respite from their work in the communities beyond Zion’s borders. Thomas and Carlos were back for a week to recuperate and to take further lessons in the history and languages of the Previous Age.
A knock at Thomas’ door, and another angel appeared.
“This is for you,” said the angel warmly, “We heard you have long admired the denim fabric that Carlos likes.”
Thomas beamed from ear to ear when the angel held up a beautiful denim jacket and a pair of jeans.
“Made for you specially. We have everyone’s exact measurements on file. Oh, and we thought a long white t-shirt would look good with these.”
Thomas came over to the angel in his boxer shorts.
“Thank you!” he said, genuinely grateful.
Thomas excitedly pulled the t-shirt over his head and then stepped into the jeans. On came the jacket and Thomas went over to the mirror hanging on the wall. Turning to his left and his right, he admired the cut of the clothes on his body and ruffled his thick black hair a little.
“Oh very 20th century!” said the angel, admiring the perfect fit of the garments.
“I really like the look and have never had the pleasure of a pair of jeans or a jacket like this. Do you think I look ‘cool’?”
“Very cool,” said the angel. “It’s funny, one of the few differences between us angels and you humans is your constant creative ideas about how to dress.”
Thomas held up his hand.
“High five?” he said, with a cheeky grin.
“Oh! I’ve always wanted to do this!” cried the angel and slapped his hand against Thomas’ making a very pleasing clapping sound. “Aren’t we so 20th century right now!”
The angel exited the room and left Thomas feeling very pleased with his gifts. There were constant surprises in Zion. There were so many ways that Jesus used to show people they were loved and appreciated.
Thomas strode down the hall and found Carlos’ door open. Carlos was spinning around on the spot fast enough for his tunic to flare outwards. He caught Thomas’ eye and laughed out loud.
“Wow! Look at you!” exclaimed Thomas.
Carlos stopped twirling and smoothed down his tunic.
“We’ve done a swap!” cried Carlos. “You look like James Dean, and I look like a first century citizen of the Roman Empire!”
“I’ve always liked denim,” said Thomas. “But I never realised you like the look of our tunics?”
“They are just so comfortable!” said Carlos. “An angel brought me this just now. Have you got your talents with you?”
“Yes, I’ve got them in my back pocket.”
“Shall we go and see what the market has to offer?”
“Yes, let’s do that. I am excited to go shopping. It’s not something we can do much of back in our communities, is it?”
As they walked Carlos asked, “Can you explain the talent system. I don’t understand it?”
“Jesus has set up a talent exchange system within Zion. Whenever a person works for the community or on an article to sell in the market they earn ten talents an hour. The rate is the same whatever work a person does. No-one is considered rich if they happen to have lots of talents, everyone knows it is just a mechanism to ensure everyone is rewarded for what they do. We are considered to work up to ten hours a day when in our communities, so are credited with one hundred talents for each day in the community,” Thomas replied.
“Do any communities have such a system?” asked Carlos.
“Some have tried it but soon fallen for the problems of inflation and disparity that caused so many problems in the Previous Age,” stated Thomas. “The talent system within Zion only works because everyone is honest, everyone trusts everyone else, everyone considers themselves equal to everyone else and everyone works to the best of their ability.”
“So no inflation within Zion?”
“No, the rate will be the same in a million years,” replied Thomas.
They went down the wide communal staircase and out into the street, savouring the buzz of people milling around in the morning air. There was a sense of excitement as people engaged in the commerce of Zion.
Many inhabitants had come to understand that they had a unique skill that could contribute to the economy of Zion. No two stalls were the same. Everything that was for sale was made with care and pride.
Markets were to be found in squares and greens across the vast landscape of Zion. Gone was the heavy mass production that had so taxed the Earth’s resources in the Previous Age, and instead hundreds of artisans and chefs had been able to open shop and trade.
“One of the things that went so wrong in the Previous Age,” remarked Carlos, “was that people never thought they had ‘enough’. Our societies consumed goods until many of the Earth’s resources were exhausted.”
“I know, it got worse as the Previous Age wore on,” said Thomas. “In my time the rich and powerful withheld food in order to control the population. The poor could scratch an existence through harvesting what they could in the wild, but if there was a draught or a flood, many would suffer terribly from hunger and lack of shelter.”
The two men were now taking their time looking through the many market stalls that lined a pretty square. The buildings were in a baroque European style, their stone facades looking radiant in the daylight. Stall holders chatted to one another over drinks and swapped stories of how they had developed their skills. Beautiful woven cloths and printed fabrics swayed in the breeze as they hung on ornate wooden frames. Various food stalls filled the air with all sorts of tantalizing aromas. Some folk worked away at their crafts behind their stalls as they patiently awaited custom. Stall holders often received comments full of praise as the citizens of Zion appreciated and respected people’s handiwork, even if it wasn’t to their personal taste.
“It’s funny how I can still ‘not get’ a piece of sculpture as a work of art, but I can still really enjoy it as a product of someone’s imagination and skill,” mused Carlos.
“Yes, I know what you mean. Agape Love doesn’t mean uniformity in terms of taste, opinion or vision,” Thomas added.
“What do you mean by vision?” asked Carlos.
“Well, all art is someone saying ‘this is what I see’. It’s their artistic vision to make that sculpture, write that story, compose that song…”
“…and we don’t all see the exact same way?” finished Carlos.
“Yes, and this surprised me for a while,” commented Thomas. “I guess I imagined ‘heaven’ as somewhere everyone always agreed?”
“Aha, I know what you mean. I was the same. I think we couldn’t help but have a utopian idea of heaven, we imagined a place where there were no disagreements,” said Carlos. “But now we know it’s not if we disagree, but how.”
The two friends took their time making their way around the market square. It was so easy to get chatting to the vendors as they went. Each had their own fascinating story of their life before Zion, and why they were doing what they were doing.
“I never enjoyed ‘shopping’ until this Age,” mused Carlos. “As a boy I would groan and protest to my mother when she’d drag me around the stores. Then the Great Suffering came, and I would daydream of shops full of food and clothes, all brand new and available for me and my family.”
Thomas walked alongside Carlos at a leisurely pace.
“I hear that before the Great Suffering you had more available to you than any other generation?” he suggested.
“Yes, we did. We took for granted that almost everything and anything would always be available to those that could afford them,” replied Carlos. “Then the droughts, floods, plagues and super-storms disrupted every aspect of the supply chain. People began to riot and ransack shops within a few days of the fuel running out.”
Thomas and Carlos stopped at a stall manned by a Latino gentleman with long brown hair tied back into a ponytail that flowed down into this lap. He sat back behind the stall, concentrating on his hammer and chisel as he slowly chipped away small shavings of wood. Thomas and Carlos quietly observed him, amazed at the process unfolding.
A sculpture of a barn owl about three feet tall was emerging on the plinth, each feather carefully carved with minute details.
The woodworker noticed Thomas and Carlos and put down his tools. Patting his hands on his overalls, he came over to greet them.
“Hello friends,” he smiled.
“That is a beautiful piece of work,” enthused Carlos.
“I’ve never seen a carving so lifelike!” said Thomas, sincerely.
“Thank you,” grinned the woodworker. “I’ve been working on this one for several months now. As you can see, she’s a bit bigger than my usual items.”
Thomas picked up a wooden horse, standing on its hind legs in an impressive stance.
“How many talents for this one?” he asked reverently.
“Hmm,” the woodworker said thoughtfully. “Forty, please?”
Thomas reached into his jeans pocket and retrieved his talents that were folded into a small wodge. Each talent was not much to look at. A plain piece of cream-coloured parchment that simply displayed the numeral ‘1’ upon both sides.
Thomas counted out forty and handed them to the man.
“Thank you,” they both said at the same time, and laughed.
“This is beautiful,” said Thomas. “Where did you learn to do this?”
“In the last period of the Previous Age, after being raised to the great feast with Jesus,” said the woodworker. “Along with many of my childhood friends, I lost my life in one of the industrial work-houses of the Previous Age. I was killed by machinery while trying to free another child who was caught in the mechanism. When I was raised, Jesus gave me some tools and I set about learning to whittle.”
The three men chatted a little longer, before Thomas and Carlos moved on to the next stand, and then the next, taking their time to take in the amazing products being displayed.
“No two markets will ever be the same, will they?” asked Carlos.
“No, they won’t,” replied Thomas. “Nothing is mass produced here. Every single person in Zion is discovering and refining their individual skills and gifts, and they each contribute to the incredible range of things on offer. And that reminds me, we should probably get to our classes!”
“I have Hindi, what do you have?” said Carlos.
“I am finishing off my Russian classes today,” said Thomas. “I will be able to serve the community I am in a little more insightfully when I can navigate the nuances of the Russian worldview using their own language.”
“See you after for a drink?” suggested Carlos.
Thomas arrived at the café and saw Carlos leaning back on a chair, his hands behind his head, and legs stretched out in front of him, eyes closed.
Thomas grinned mischievously and swiped a salt shaker from the table next to him. Creeping silently up behind Carlos, he stifled his mirth as he began to shake salt down onto Carlos’ forehead.
Carlos furrowed his brow for a split second before bolting upright and hastily wiping his hands over his face.
Thomas burst into laughter, making Carlos jump up and spin around.
“Oi!” he yelled, so loudly that everyone in the café looked up at them. Thomas crossed his eyes, stuck out his tongue and Carlos dissolved into laughter, joining his friend.
Carlos swept away the last of the salt from his clothes and sat back down.
“You trickster! I’ve not often seen this side of you?”
“I know. It’s this place! It brings out the fun in me. When I’m here I just feel so happy. I can see that I’ve often been very serious, I guess I always was. But here, I feel so free!”
Carlos resumed his relaxed position, sighing happily.
“I know exactly what you mean,” he said. “In the Previous Age it was difficult to imagine how wonderful this place would be,” he mused.
After their first drink, a sprightly south-east Asian came out from the café with a cloth over their shoulder. Fi had identified as non-binary in the Previous Age but such distinctions were not relevant any more, each person was comfortable in their resurrected body.
“Another drink?” she suggested, beginning to collect up the glasses. “Enjoy the coffee?”
“I loved it!” answered Carlos, without hesitation.
Thomas looked at Fi and winced slightly.
“You didn’t like it, did you?” said Fi.
“I’m sorry, it just wasn’t my preferred drink!” said Thomas.
“And that’s ok!” said Fi. “Tell you what, tell me what you like, and I’ll make it for you with no extra charge?”
Thomas drummed his fingers on the table for a couple of seconds, and then his face lit up.
“Do you do calda like they did at the start of the first century in the Previous Age? Like they did in Palestine?”
“Oh wow, no one has asked for that since Jesus was here about two months ago. Yes! We can do that for you!”
“Thank you,” said Thomas. “I would prefer that, rather than these bitter drinks that he likes.” Thomas pointed at Carlos with his thumb.
“No problem, I’ll get it ready for you now.”
“Thank you so much, erm…”
“Fi,” said Fi.
“Well, thank you, Fi. That’s so kind of you.”
“Just the two talents then,” said Fi, matter-of-factly.
“I’ll get these,” said Carlos, handing two talents to Fi.
“What are you two doing tonight?” asked Fi, tucking the talents into an apron.
“We thought we’d go to the comedy club round the corner,” said Carlos. “Would you like to come along?”
“Wow, yeah! I’d love that actually,” beamed Fi. “I’ve been meaning to go and see something there. Bear with me, I’ll be finished in an hour.”
“If we help you clean up, will that mean you can finish earlier?”
“Yes, I guess it would,” smiled Fi.
The three new friends chatted about their journeys in the Previous Age. Fi had come to a vibrant faith in Jesus through a friendship with a couple of his followers who had turned up in Fi’s town on the west coast of Thailand after the Great Suffering. Fi was drawn to them by their complete acceptance. Fi had been mercilessly bullied by their family. After they were killed, in a terrible tsunami, Fi had found solitude the easiest way through the Great Suffering. Eventually Fi had fallen in with a small community who based themselves out of a ruined shopping mall, and that’s where the Jesus followers had turned up.
“So do you prefer ‘he’ or ‘she’?” asked Carlos.
“I am resurrected into a female body, and I am totally happy with that, and ‘she’,” said Fi.
Fi finished wiping up some wet crockery on the draining board, while Thomas swept the floor and Carlos put chairs on tables. Soon they were finished, and Fi closed the door to the café.
“I still love it that I don’t ever have to lock up!” she exclaimed as they walked away from the café.
“It took me a little while to get used to not having to be protective of anything,” agreed Carlos.
“I’ve been in a very challenging community, and people steal and disrespect each other’s property all the time,” added Thomas. “But here there are no locks and it’s perfectly natural.”
Carlos looked out across the square. “It’s so clean,” he marvelled.
“Well firstly there is very little in the way of waste, but secondly, everyone contributes to the tasks needed to keep it clean. Each week someone draws up a table of what needs to be done and then everyone puts their name against one or more of the tasks. No one wants to spoil the place, and everyone is responsible. In that way, the city virtually takes care of itself,” remarked Fi.
“Even the toilets?” asked Carlos.
“Everyone takes a turn in moving the toilets. Each week the units over each hole are lifted and cleaned. A new hole is dug and the unit placed over the new hole,” replied Fi.
“What about the more enjoyable activities?” asked Thomas.
“There are some who like to organise those things. They usually have a strong passion or desire for something. There are people who have organised choirs, musical ensembles, sports, games, plays, walking trips – almost anything you can imagine that people like to do.”
“So, if I wanted to go and explore a certain part of Zion, maybe look for butterflies, how would I organise that?” asked Carlos.
“It’s as straightforward as putting up some notices in the cafes and restaurants… market squares have community notice boards. Talk to people, invite them along? People just say where to meet and when and then go and do it. It’s so great here, as anybody that organises something is doing it for their own enjoyment and, equally, the enrichment of others. If only two people show up, they have as much fun as if twenty people show up. In fact, some of my favourite times have been when there’s only been a few people. I like volleyball and we meet by a lake each week to play. If there’s only a couple of us, we might throw the ball around for a bit and then just sit and talk or be content in quietly taking in the view.”
The three kept chatting as they turned a corner on to a main street, with more interesting shops, cafes and restaurants. A few minutes walk down the road led to an opening with stairs leading up from the street level to a large upper room. A stage took up one end of the room, with a thick maroon curtain forming a backdrop. Various people were already sat at a smattering of tables across the floor space, and a bar was being staffed by a red-haired man and a woman previously from the Indian sub-continent.
Fi went to the bar and paid her talents for some beers, bringing them back to the table just as the curtains were being pulled over the windows. Candlelight gave the room a warm and welcoming glow and then a cheer went up as a black woman with spikey hair took to the stage.
The next couple of hours was taken up with several performers taking a turn to tell jokes and funny stories from the stage. Relatable, observational humour was the order of the day, with some considerable surrealism from one of the comedians. It was clear that none of them were comedians in the Previous Age but had since discovered a love of making people laugh. The audience reaction was supportive and before long the comedians were getting over their initial nerves.
“And that is how I came to know that trying to sleep in a bear’s cave isn’t the best way to spend your birthday!” said the man before giving a small bow to the friendly cheering and applause.
“Wow, that guy was funny,” said Carlos, dabbing his eyes.
“I didn’t get it,” said Fi, “But I had a lovely time watching you laugh so much!”
Thomas was more ambivalent. “I preferred the Greek guy.”
“That is what we called ‘slapstick’,” said Carlos. “Yeah, he was pretty funny. Another beer anyone?”
The trio decided they would have one more ‘for the road’ and then head back to their dwellings. Carlos was carrying the tray over from the bar to the table, when a man stood up and backed into Carlos, sending one of the beers crashing to the floor. A few people turned to look and smiled empathetically.
“I’m so sorry,” said the man, clearly a little embarrassed. “I didn’t see you there. My fault. Let me buy you another?”
“No problem at all,” said Carlos with a grin. “These things happen!”
“Don’t worry,” said the lady behind the bar, “We’ve got this. It was clearly an accident.”
She poured another beer and Carlos, having put down the other drinks, returned to the bar to collect it.
“Thank you, that’s so kind,” he said.
“Yes, that is lovely of you, thank you,” said the other man. “Throw me a cloth, let me clear up the mess?”
The bar lady threw him a cloth but also came round with a dustpan and brush. The two of them set-to, cleaning up the smashed glass and spilt beer. Carlos came back and scouted out any shards that had fallen further away. Within a few minutes the mess was cleaned up and Carlos had returned to sit with Fi and Thomas.
“There was a time I couldn’t just have a couple of beers,” said Carlos. “I would drink a lot of alcohol to try and have a good time and numb out my feelings. An accident like that would’ve sparked anger in me. I remember getting violent with people in the Previous Age if someone had spilled my drink. It was an excuse to vent my inner rage. Gosh, I am so different now! It feels so good to just know I can stop when I know I’ve had enough.”
“I am amazed at how everyone just enjoys a drink without taking it too far,” observed Fi. “It is clear that self-control is a fruit in everyone’s lives here in Zion. And kindness too – no one ever wants to leave another person to do all the work. Sometimes the way people bend over backwards to help each other is almost as comical as the acts tonight!”
The three finished their drinks and walked back, bidding Fi goodbye at her café.
“Don’t you just love the way we never stop learning from all the people we meet?” said Thomas.
“Every single person here has an amazing story and is full of the fruit of the spirit, it’s just wonderful,” answered Carlos. “There is never a dull moment.”
Carlos embraced Thomas. “Enjoy your sleep, and I’ll be thinking of you as you re-join Bull out in your community.”
“Thank you, brother,” said Thomas. “So good to spend this time with you. I’m sure you’ll be pleased to see Sylvia back at the village, and all the other inhabitants of course!”
The two friends parted with a little sadness at the prospect of not seeing one another for some time. Zion had afforded them an exciting and memorable interlude, giving them a chance to rest and further equipping them with new language skills. They’d gained many friends but were both looking forward to continuing their service in the communities beyond Zion.