Broadman & Holman Publishers
When I awoke, I found myself in a darkened, empty train, with no idea where it was headed. Inside the train was pitch black. The only light was something like moonlight outside the windows. The darkness seemed to be diminishing by the second. Off in the far horizon was a faint streak of peach in the sky, indicating that there was light ahead. It was as if the train was heading into a sunrise.
When there was sufficient light, I noticed a black sweater lying on the seat in front of me. It was one of those old Irish fishermen’s sweaters. I was feeling a little chilly, so I decided to put it on. It fit perfectly. Without any warning the train came to a halt. I got out and walked on the platform. There were no signs. No one seemed to be driving the train. I had no idea where I was.
A path leading away from the platform seemed to head into the woods. A single lamppost stood just off the platform. The ground was covered with leaves—brown, yellow, red, and orange. The sweet odor of decay was in the air. It must be autumn in this place, I thought. Not knowing what else to do, I started walking down the path. The path ended at the bottom of a hill. I turned in circles, wondering which way to go. I lifted up my eyes toward the small hill whose shoulders glowed.
The rays of the light seemed to be calling me over that hill. I walked up to its peak, and I could see a cottage a hundred yards away, and through a large window I could see a fire burning. The sight of the fire strengthened me against the cold as I walked down the path toward it. It suddenly occurred to me that I was sleepwalking in the woods in my blue pajamas and someone’s black wool sweater. At that point I figured it must be a dream so I might as well enjoy it.
Lining each side of the path were white lilies, taller than normal. Every lily was glowing with a light of its own, an internal light that emanated from its core. The light was similar to a street lamp, only strong enough to light the area around it. When I touched one of the blossoms, it felt as if the petals were made of iron, yet each moved at my touch. I walked down the path feeling a little frightened. “It’s just a dream,” I muttered to myself, and with that new thought I picked up my pace toward the cottage.
The path, and the lilies, came to an end about a hundred feet from the cottage. As soon as I stepped off the path, I was surrounded by a pack of wolves—I counted seven—looking ravenous. Our eyes met, and I froze in fear. My feet felt like they were attached to the ground; I couldn’t move. My heart began to race with the thought that I might not be dreaming at all. I wanted to turn and run but couldn’t. The wolves moved closer. Then suddenly a lion appeared from the woods. He let out a roar and sent the wolves running away, howling as they fled. The lion glanced back at me and then began walking toward me. Sweat was trickling down my sides. Though the lion was three times my size, I was somehow not frightened by it at all.
The lion walked back toward me until he got right up in my face, so close I could feel his breath. He looked at me with a look that said, “Do not be afraid.” He walked behind me, forced his head between my legs, and flipped me up on his back. I was suddenly riding on the back of a large lion, seated between his shoulders and holding onto his mane.
The lion walked up to the front door of the cottage and stopped. He put his chin to the ground, and I slid over his neck, left standing on the doorstep of the cottage. The lion quickly padded off into the woods without a sound. I turned back to the door in front of me and started to knock when it opened by itself, making my knuckles hit nothing but air. It was chilly outside, and the fire looked inviting.
The cottage was small and mostly bare, consisting of one large room. The fire was still burning in the fireplace, the kind whose coals glow at the base. There was only one chair in the whole room. It was an old-fashioned barber’s chair. The fireplace had a white mantle with nothing on it but a single candle that seemed to give enough light to illumine the whole room. I began to wonder what time it was and where in the world I was. I looked down at my watch. The second hand wasn’t moving.
There was nothing on any of the walls except one picture, a framed photo, above the mantle. As I got closer, I noticed that there was a person in the photograph, a small boy sitting in a sandbox with his sand pail and a shovel, laughing at nothing in particular, it seemed, just laughing because he was having fun. Just as when a person near you yawns it makes you yawn, so the laughter coming from this picture made me begin to smile, even though I had no idea what he was laughing about or why. I inched closer to see it more clearly.
“Oh wow,” I blurted out. “It’s me.”
It was a framed photo of me as a small boy, but it was one I had never seen before, one that obviously did not make it into the family albums. I would have remembered this one. I vaguely remembered the day, and I remembered the sandbox, but I could not recall mom or dad or anyone ever taking a picture of me in it. The more I tried to figure out the mystery of the photo, the less at ease I felt in this strange but peaceful cottage.
“It’s a great picture,” a voice said from behind me.
Startled, I turned around to see who it was. It was an older man wearing a white coat. He appeared to be in his sixties, with only a wisp of gray hair on his plump but pleasant head. He wore gray flannel pants and well-worn wing-tip shoes. In one hand he was holding a pair of scissors and in the other a black comb. As soon as I noticed the scissors and comb, I recognized who he was.
“Ernie?” I said.
“Yesiree. How are you, Tim? You look a little tired.”
“Ernie . . . I haven’t seen you in—”
“A long time.”
“Ernie, what are you doing here? You died—”
“About twenty years ago in your time. But it seems like only a moment ago to me. You know what they say about how time flies. Well, yesiree, I did die, yes, I sure did. Well, I really didn’t die. I just left the place where you live.”
I interrupted this time: “Speaking of which, where exactly am I?”
“You’re in your Father’s house . . . our Father’s house, that is. Yesiree.”
“How did I . . . get here?”
“Well,” Ernie said, with a huge and growing grin, “you finally got to that blessed place—God’s address.”
“God’s address? Where’s that?”
“At the end of yourself!” Ernie laughed.
“At the end of myself?”
“Yesiree. The place of complete desperation. It happened when you were asking for help.”
“I don’t remember asking for help.” “You said you needed help. So God rallied the angels, and we all began to stir.”
“Who began to stir?”
“Lots of people.”
“But Ernie, I wasn’t really praying. I was just falling asleep. I fell asleep while I was praying! That’s hardly a spiritual feat.”
“Yeah, God has a sense of humor. Just when you surrendered, he brought you here. That’s when he does some of his best work. That’s because it’s all by grace. You’ve been rejecting him, but now you find yourself in the place you always wanted to be. Here. In your Father’s house.”
I was utterly speechless. A few minutes ago I was trying to fall asleep in an uncomfortable bed, and now I am here with my dead barber, who is not actually dead at all. In fact, I never saw Ernie look better. He doesn’t even have his usual bad breath—one of the many reasons I hated getting haircuts throughout my childhood.
Ernie was always nice, though. He gave me my very first haircut. My mom stood by the chair and held my hand because I was so scared. I tried to act brave. When it was over, he gave me a lollipop, a kind of reward for enduring being Samsonized. I remembered how his combs seemed to dance in the blue water, floating up and down in the sterilizing jar. And the final act of each cut—shaving my neck with a straightedge razor—always gave me goose bumps.
“What are you doing here, Ernie? I mean, if this is God’s house, where is God?”
“Oh well, Tim, you can’t see God,” he said with a sad and serious look. “You aren’t dead yet. You’re still seein’ through the glass dimly.”
“I see—no pun intended. But . . . have you seen God, Ernie?”
“Oh yes. Yes, yes, yes, I have! I have seen him many times. Yesiree. It’s a wonderful thing, I can promise ya that.”
“Then I can assume that when you died you went to heaven . . . assuming this is heaven.”
“You sure can.”
“Well, I have to confess, Ernie. I didn’t know you were a Christian.”
“Well, I didn’t talk about my faith. I just tried to live it. I didn’t preach to my customers. Maybe I should have. But I prayed for ’em. Every one of ’em. Even mean old Mr. Alexander. He was pretty bald, so it meant for a short prayer! But seriously, I decided one day to try to be the kind of barber Jesus would have been if he had been in my wing tips.”
“You were always kind to me, Ernie. I remember that. But why are you here with me . . . now?”
“Because God chose me.”
“Chose you . . . why?”
Ernie looked at me and only smiled.
Then it hit me.
“Aw, I get it. You prayed for me, didn’t you?”
“Yesiree. I said I prayed for all of my customers, and that includes you.”
“Yeah, but I was just a little boy.”
“Yep, you were, and a scared one at that. Your momma had to hold your hand while I cut. I used to pray for you to calm down and not be afraid. And then I would pray that one day the Lord would reveal himself to you. I said, ‘Lord, bless this fine young boy. Let him know how much you love him. One day, Lord, make him into something special.’ Remember when I used to tilt your head forward so I could cut the back? That was when I laid my hand on you and prayed for you.”
“Wow, I never knew that.”
“Of course not. I didn’t pray out loud. I did it secretly, like Jesus said. Even my scissors hand didn’t know what my comb hand was up to!”
“Thanks. Thanks for doing that,” I said as I turned my eyes to the ground. Whenever I hear that someone has prayed for me I, feel embarrassed and cannot find words to thank them.
“Ernie,” I said softly, “I did become a Christian but not till I was eighteen.”
“Well, prayin’ ain’t like gettin’ somethin’ from a vending machine. It ain’t automatic. We just pray and let God figure out how and where and when.”
“Yeah. I guess so. Thanks. But I . . . have sort of lost my—”
“I know, I know, Tim,” he said, with a look that told me I needed to say no more.
My eyes drifted back to the fireplace and, more particularly, to the picture above the mantle.
“Ernie, tell me about this picture on the wall. What’s it doing here?” I asked.
“That’s a picture of you, Tim. It’s one of God’s favorites,” Ernie replied.
“But I don’t remember it being taken.”
“It wasn’t. At least not by a camera. It’s one of God’s memories. He put it here on the wall because it is one of his favorites, like I said. And he wanted you to see it.”
“Boy, I look so happy,” I said as I looked closer at the face of the young boy laughing toward the sky. It is so strange to look at photos of yourself as a child. I stared in wonder at the person I once was, and I was wishing I could return to those days of innocence.
“Nope, you can’t,” Ernie said.
“You can’t return to those days of innocence, but you can see the world with different eyes.”
“What? . . . How did you? . . . Can you read my mind?” I asked.
“Sure I can. Up here there are no secrets.” I stood silent for a few moments, stunned.
“Yep,” Ernie said, breaking the silence, “There’s nothing he likes more than when his creation rejoices. You’ve lost your joy, Tim. He wants you to find it again.”
“How is he going to do that? How is he going to restore my joy?”
“You’ll see soon enough. How about a haircut?”
“Do I really need one?”
“You look a little shaggy to me.”
I remembered that anything longer than a buzz cut seemed too long to Ernie. The sixties and seventies were not easy for Ernie in this regard. He smiled and held up his scissors and comb. I could not help but say yes.
I sat down in the old-fashioned barber’s chair. “I don’t need a booster seat anymore, Ernie,” I said. He threw the black cape around me, placed the white tissue paper around my neck, tightened the cape around my neck with the snap, and began to pump the seat up with his foot.
“Looks like you’ve lost a little on top, Tim.”
“A little? How about a lot? Male-patterned baldness is not the joy it is cracked up to be.”
“Well, like I always said, ‘Hair today, gone tomorrow.’” Ernie said, laughing at his own joke. “Besides it just means God has less to do.”
“Less to do?” I asked, playing along with what I sensed would be another bad joke.
“Yesiree. The Bible says God knows the number of every hair on our heads. So in your case he has fewer to count!”
Biblical barber humor is a rare find, and though hair-loss jokes wore thin a few years ago, I played along, and we both smiled for awhile as he continued to cut what hair I still have.
“So you told me how I got here. The end of myself and all. But you haven’t told me why? Why am I here?”
“I already told you, remember? He wants to restore your joy. There’s a lot inside of you that’s hurtin’. You’ve had some real losses, and you’ve beaten yourself up pretty good tryin’ to figure it out. He heard your prayers, and this is his answer.”
“I don’t remember praying for . . . this.”
“I didn’t say the prayers you said with your lips. Those are fine and all, but the ones God really pays attention to are the silent ones. The ones that come from so deep in your heart words can’t express ’em.”
“But how will this place . . . restore my joy?”
“All in good time, Tim, all in good time. He brought you here to show you some things. You just be still awhile, and I’ll finish this haircut.”
As Ernie clipped away, I settled into the chair, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath. The cottage was so peaceful. A sense of being loved began to well up from deep inside me, like when you come home after you have been away awhile and everyone is so happy to see you.
“How ya feelin’ now?”
“I feel fine. Really fine.”
That was an understatement. This cottage radiated with warmth and acceptance, that honest kind of welcome, the “I know you’ve made a mess; I know all of your broken promises and your shameful moments and your worst thoughts—but you are still welcome here,” kind of acceptance. Ernie broke my train of thought by sticking a mirror in my face. “What do you think?”
I looked at my own reflection and felt a shudder in my soul. Ernie brought the mirror in closer. It is shocking sometimes to look deeply into your own eyes.
“Look deeper, Tim.”
My vision blurred for a moment. The face I saw looked different. Dear God, I thought as I looked at the face I had not really wanted to look at for years, look at how sad I am. And how tired.
I saw a tear form a ring around my left eye, then pool and run down my cheek.
“A face that could move the very heart of God!” a voice said from behind us, a deep voice with a British accent.
“Hello, Jack,” Ernie said. “I thought you might be the one. It’s good to see you! Come on in!”