Yuri ladled some steaming vegetable stew into the bowl presented by the last person in the line.
“Thank you,” said the woman, with a grateful smile.
Yuri giggled a little awkwardly. He had never in his whole existence considered what it was like to be trusted until arriving in this community at the start of his seventh jubilee.
Yuri spent a whole day once a week cooking up a delicious feast for everyone in his village. The idea had come to him after a comment from a neighbour about how good his dinner smelled. When they accepted his invitation to join him in eating it, he relished the experience and resolved to do it again.
With increasing frequency, he invited more and more of his neighbours to eat with him, until he had the idea to spend a whole day each week cooking for everyone. Gulag lay at his feet and many in the line would stoop down to stroke him as they queued for Yuri’s much-loved meal. The whole community, about eighty people, would make the evening a celebration and sit happily in the open air, eating, laughing and sharing stories.
But more than the compliments paid for his culinary skills, Yuri adored the openness with which people approached him. He would sometimes cast his eye around the scene, observing all the happy people eating his food, and glow with satisfaction. It didn’t seem too long ago that Yuri wanted people to fear him, or even more recently, to leave him alone. Now he was popular and liked; and he was trusted. It took a while for Yuri to accept that people could take his gift of food from him, and not treat him with suspicion.
Scraping up the last of the vegetable stew, Yuri took his bowl and found a place to settle down and eat his own portion. As he slumped, tired but happy, onto a wooden seat near his cooking station, he noticed some faces in a group sat nearby. They were looking at him as they spoke to one another. Yuri nodded and smiled in their direction and then began to enjoy the contents of his bowl.
To his surprise, the group stood and moved over to where Yuri was sitting and were soon settled around his feet.
“Are you ok?” he asked gently.
“Absolutely,” said one of them. “We just wanted to be with you. This is our favourite day of the week, thanks to you.”
“Tell us how you came here?” said one of the others. “We don’t know your story. You always seem happier to listen than to talk, but we care about you, Yuri!”
Yuri swallowed his mouthful and put down his bowl, rubbing his hands on his apron.
“Well, ok,” he said, still a little embarrassed to be centre of attention.
“First, the Previous Age,” he began. “My childhood was one of poverty. I learned quickly that the world owed me nothing, so I had to take what I wanted to survive. I now see that this was my desire just to live, I didn’t want to be cold and hungry, poor and fearful. I used any way I could to get what I needed. However, that soon turned into having what I wanted, not just what I needed. I used violence and fear to get what I desired, and I found that using illegal methods was the quickest way to get rich.
The choices I made hurt many people. People died because of me. I thought the only person I could trust was myself. I used whatever I could to keep me rich and powerful. But in this process, I know that I built very high walls to keep people out. I hated vulnerability of any kind. I worked hard every day to keep myself on top of my business. To keep the money coming in. To keep my men loyal to me by paying them or hooking them on drugs so that they were dependent on me.”
The community had stopped eating and were all listening to Yuri’s story.
“I am sorry to say that I killed my girlfriend. I had my oldest friend, who had become a police officer, killed. I was ruthless and full of hatred. I only loved power. I got into gambling. High stakes. It was the buzz of the risk, and the euphoria of winning. Except I lost. A lot. So much so that I made enemies when I couldn’t pay my debts. In the end I had a huge heart attack and died, like a stray dog – in the street. I don’t think anyone mourned my passing.”
All the faces around Yuri were turned to him, listening to every word.
“What did Jesus say when he raised you?” asked one of them.
Yuri paused and felt a tsunami of love so strongly that he thought he might pass out. It was like a freight train had gone through him, shaking his whole body. It passed, but tears were now streaming.
“He gave me my dog. The only thing I ever truly loved in my life.” Yuri looked down at Gulag who returned his gaze. The crowd audibly rippled with sympathy.
“Let me tell you,” continued Yuri. “Jesus showed me love from the first minute I met him. He welcomed me with a shot of vodka and gave me my best friend. But I didn’t know how to receive love. I pushed him away. I thought he was weak. I had such twisted ideas back then. But Jesus put me in a community where I began to learn the futility of my ways. Violence was no longer a way to control others. I was with men just like me and it was like slowly learning to see yourself in a mirror.
In the second jubilee I was again in a community with people who had similar backgrounds, but different attitudes. It was there I learned that I did have the basis of an ability to understand injustice, I started having empathy for those abused by people with power.
In the next jubilee I learned that I could make friends and that kindness was not weakness.
Then I went to a community where I had the opportunity learn to understand other people, and I continued to grow in empathy. Slowly but surely, I came to find such joy in hearing other people’s stories.
Two more jubilees followed, in each I learnt more about myself. I accepted that I was a member of God’s family, that he accepted me and that I could trust him.”
“Jesus has always put us with people that are best able to help us grow,” said another person. “My story is so similar, Yuri. At first, I thought Jesus was punishing me by putting me with people who had also come from a rough Previous Age. They were all just like me, but then I started to see that in such communities we would grow and learn from each other. And the first thing we had to learn was to listen to each other.”
“Yes, I think you’re right. I mean, how many of us here used violence for our own gain in the Previous?” Yuri asked the crowd.
Many of those listening nodded or raised a hand.
“I beat my kids,” said Andrea, the woman who had been the last in the line to get her food. “I neglected them too. Lord knows I am sorry for what I did. I’ve had so many flashbacks – like a waking nightmare. But I understand now that this was my conscience showing me the truth.”
“But were you given time with others like you?” asked a man sat next to her.
“Yeah, I was. I was given time with other people that had abused vulnerable people. It was in those communities we learned to forgive one another, and to forgive ourselves. The helpers that Jesus sent showed us, through understanding and empathy, that we could truly start again and have a new existence.”
“I believe with all my heart that we will get to say sorry to those we abused,” said Yuri. “I know that I want to, now. I know that I caused destruction and pain. I know I made bad choices and that I had the wrong idea about the meaning of life.”
“I don’t think anyone had it all right, though,” said another.
“I agree, but I don’t think that was the point of life anyway,” said Yuri thoughtfully. “I mean, if it was all about perfection, then nothing would be good enough. I now realise, through getting to know other people, that my story is just a tiny part of the bigger picture. No one is alone in regretting some of the things that happened. I have caused harm, and others have harmed me. But look at us!”
Every head turned around to look at each other.
“We are healing, aren’t we?”
“I believe we are,” said Andrea. “I know how far I have come. I feel things now, when for so long I was numb. I want to live now. Before, I didn’t want to exist. I took my own life in the Previous Age. I hated myself and I believed that I didn’t deserve to be alive. I believed I actually wanted to be punished in Hell for what I had done.
Jesus, and his helpers, treated me with dignity and with kindness. The undoing of my self-hatred started when he didn’t show me the hatred that I had expected. I thought, if there was a God, it would punish me like I deserved. But instead, he has shown me kindness. It was coming into an understanding of what real love is like that helped me see how wrong I was. It allowed me to fully and wholeheartedly reject my destruction.”
The community murmured in agreement.
“The love we have been shown is so much bigger than our own ability to mess up,” said Yuri. “We have been given time to truly reject our past mistakes and to find kindness and grace – not just from Jesus, but from one another. The way we can truly say ‘me too’ to each other.”
“Do you remember the people we had among us that Jesus placed with us to be an example of love to us?” asked one of the men sat nearby.
Yuri smiled fondly, thinking of Thomas and Bull. “Man, I gave those guys a hard time.”
“All they ever wanted to do was cheer us on towards a better way of living. They really were a gift from God.”
“Mine were so gentle. They always knew how to comfort me,” the woman continued.
“I can’t wait to see them again,” said Yuri. “And believe me, I never thought I’d say that.”
“And you won’t have to wait long.”
A voice called out from behind Yuri. He turned to see that a man had been sitting just behind his cooking equipment.
“Jesus?” said Yuri, almost in a whisper of disbelief.
Gulag sprang up and bounded over to Jesus, excitedly licking his face. Jesus laughed and stood up.
“I’ve been listening with such a happy heart,” said Jesus. “You are all such a delight to me!”
Gasps, laughter and joyful whispers went up through the crowd. Some began to cry at the sight of Jesus among them.
“My friends,” said Jesus, addressing the community. “I have seen the way your hearts have opened to one another. I have seen the way you have chosen Agape love repeatedly. Oh, little flock! How I have looked forward to this day!”
“Jesus! You saved us!” cried a woman from one side of the crowd. Some cheered and applauded.
“We love you, Jesus!” cried another.
Yuri’s knees buckled and he found himself kneeling on the grass with Gulag at his side.
“Thank you Jesus. How can I ever thank you enough?” said Yuri, almost enraptured in the moment.
Jesus turned to him and put a hand on his shoulder. “Yuri, my brother. You are to come to Zion, to my home. Each of your friends will be coming soon, but today is your day.”
Yuri looked up at Jesus. For the first time he didn’t flinch at the fiery love in Jesus’ eyes. He knew Jesus could see the totality of who he was, but now there was nothing Yuri wanted to hide. He knew that Jesus could see that his heart was now pure and righteous, and it felt so good. Yuri stood and the community burst into spontaneous applause.
“You deserve this, Yuri,” said Andrea.
Yuri held out his hands and held Andrea’s for a few seconds before she nodded in the direction behind Yuri. Turning his head Yuri was glad to see Cedric the Seraph standing near Jesus. The creature bowed low in greeting. “Hello young man,” said Cedric warmly. Yuri did feel young. Younger than he’d ever felt before.
Climbing on to Cedric’s huge, broad back between his wings, Yuri felt like a little boy. He grinned with anticipation as Jesus climbed on behind him, Gulag leaping on between them.
“This never gets boring,” said Jesus.
Before long they were soaring over the landscape of the New Earth beneath them.
Yuri saw he was heading for a colourful garden of flowers and intriguingly cut shrubs. As they dismounted the seraph, Yuri took in the vibrant scents. Gulag was soon weaving in and out of the shrubs and fountains of orchids.
“Yuri,” said Jesus, his voice piercing the perfect stillness of the garden.
Yuri looked up from admiring some of the blooms near him.
“This place is a garden of reconciliation. There is someone here I want you to meet.”
A lump formed, pressing in Yuri’s throat.
“I understand,” he said, steeling himself for what he knew must take place.
Jesus motioned with his arm, toward a circular pool of sky-blue water. At the head of the pool was an arch carved into a tall green hedge of orchids. At that moment the person he was expecting to see appeared in the archway.
Helena stood watching Yuri across the blue pool. Her eyes were soft, but her gaze was locked. The lump in Yuri’s throat felt like a knot of concrete as he looked upon the woman he had killed so savagely.
Jesus stood close to Yuri as Helena began to approach them, walking slowly around the edge of the blue pool. She glanced down a couple of times, but as she got closer, a whisp of a smile began to give a lightness to her face.
Helena stood before the man who had got her hooked on hard drugs, had raped her repeatedly and eventually snuffed out her life. Yuri trembled, he felt the gravity of this moment. Helena’s smile cracked open, revealing gleaming white teeth, but she said nothing.
Yuri’s quivering hand reached out for Jesus’ as his knees gave way. He found himself looking up at Helena, his right hand holding tight to Jesus’ shirt.
“Please. Stand up.” Helena requested. “I would like you to look at me in my face - as an equal.”
Yuri’s face crumpled at the gentleness of her voice. Helena’s dignity and calm was almost painful to encounter. Unlike when he had first met Jesus, Yuri was now able to sense the presence of grace and Agape Love. He moved himself into a kneeling position, looking up at his former victim.
“I… I…can’t,” Yuri sobbed.
Helena knelt so that her face was opposite Yuri’s.
“Then I will come to you,” she said.
“Helena, I… I know what I did. I see it now. I know what I did to you.”
“I know you know,” she whispered. “You would not be here unless you could see clearly.”
Yuri bowed his head, tears falling straight down from his eyes into the grass.
“Yuri, you need hear this now…” began Helena.
“No! Wait, please! Let me say it first! I need to, please Helena, allow me to say it…”
Helena paused, her smile now replaced by the biting of her bottom lip, her face wrought with emotion.
“Helena, I am sorry. I am so sorry. I know what I did. I know what I was. I destroyed you.”
Helena’s face became a frown.
“Yes, Yuri. You did. You destroyed me. I suffered at your hands. You disfigured me and your own soul in the process.”
Yuri could see himself in his mind’s eye, raining his fists down on Helena’s swollen body, blood pouring from her nose and lips.
“Lift your head, Yuri. Look me in the eye.”
Yuri looked up. It was as if the sun was shining directly behind her. He could see her perfectly restored face, and yet the atmosphere around her seemed to shine with a dazzling force.
“Yuri, I love you with Agape Love. I forgive you everything. In the name of God I forgive you for all that you did to me.”
Yuri felt as if he had caught fire with an invisible flame that overtook his body, his mind and his spirit. In his mind he saw the blazing light penetrate the darkness of his memory, and the image of what he did to Helena was blotted out by the sheer brilliance of the light. In that moment Yuri saw that his entire existence had been altered by the truth of Agape Love.
All his harmful actions were forgiven by his creator, and his victims.
Now, at last, he could let go of who he once was and see himself as an entirely new creation. His essence was the same, but what now defined him was infinitely bigger than anything he had ever done in the Previous Age.
Helena held out her hands. Yuri took them and she pulled him up so that they were at an equal height again.
“What bound us together in the past has been the source of our redemption,” said Helena.
“Jesus is turning everything that was broken into the very source of our healing,” said Yuri. “We are… his masterpieces!”
He shook his head. He turned to thank Jesus, but to his surprise found that he was no longer there.
“This is our reality now, and it changes how we view the past, the present and the future,” said Helena. “The old has gone and the new is here. We are like new creations!”
Yuri and Helena walked together into the garden. As they walked their discussion allowed yet more light to permeate all that had been.
Two souls that were linked in darkness were born anew in light. The future stretched out before them with uncountable possibilities.