The character, Jasper, finds himself in a very real-feeling vision, where he’s in a desert having to face the accusation and pain of all the people who have hurt him or whom he believes he has hurt in his life. It’s a desert of self-condemnation and loneliness; essentially, this world of lies that he’s created around himself, that he feels he deserves. But the desert then turns into the place of identity, freedom, and companionship when the truth is revealed.
Likewise, in his time in the desert, Jesus was faced with accusations from the enemy. These accusations questioned Jesus’ identity as a beloved son and cast doubt on the goodness of his Father. But, having received his Father’s approval already, he answered the accusations with his identity, from knowing his belovedness as the son of God. He comes to reveal this same belovedness to us all, regardless of what we’ve done or haven’t done, experienced or haven’t experienced.
Second half of Chapter 35
The layout had changed. Or perhaps he hadn’t yet looked in this direction? He honestly wasn’t sure. A large rock, much taller and wider than a man, sat a few yards distant. And behind that, an even larger cliff. Jasper had to crane his neck to see the top of it. The dark rock stood in stark contrast to the light sand. He looked back again, and River was gone. But the others were still there. He wondered why they didn’t come after him. When Jasper turned back toward the rocks, he was surprised to find a man leaning against the smaller boulder.
Looking at this man’s face, Jasper felt a distinct sense of companionship. A warmth grew in his chest, relaxing his muscles and taking some of the edge off. The man smiled at him. His smile was genuine and trustworthy—he couldn’t explain it any other way.
By every appearance, this man was no more than a vagabond. His clothes were nothing but torn rags hanging from his body, his face was badly sunburned, his lips dry and cracked. His long dark hair was pulled back loosely from his face. He wore leather flip flops on red and swollen feet. How long had he been in the desert? His thin body implied malnourishment. And yet he smiled, seemingly completely at peace. Jasper had no words to offer the man—somehow they didn’t seem necessary. There was a reason he was here, and he clearly knew more about this place than Jasper did.
“Why are you afraid of them?” The man spoke. Jasper was caught off guard by the question, though he knew exactly whom he referred to. He also knew now that this was the voice he had heard earlier, twice.
“Why have I not seen you until now?” Jasper’s voice came out thin and raspy. “Am I dead?” he added, thinking this man might know.
“You ask the wrong questions, friend. Look behind you.”
Jasper looked at the gathered crowd of familiar faces. “Are they real?” the strange man asked him.
“You tell me,” Jasper replied through clenched teeth.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to give you the answer you’re looking for. But think about it, Jase. What is real, and what is merely a figment of your imagination that you must obliterate?”
“These people are real, and they’re here because I’ve hurt them.”
“Really?” He heard the man ask softly behind him. Then he was standing right beside him. Jasper turned. He wanted to weep when he looked at the man’s face, but he didn’t understand why.
“There are a lot of things you haven’t understood, Jasper. But today, I want to bring some light to your darkened senses.”
Jasper couldn’t respond. His throat had closed. He looked at the people again, accusing him, hurt and bleeding.
“You need to ask yourself what is real, Jasper. Because sometimes the things you see are merely projections of what you believe. You have the power; they are no threat to you unless you allow them to be. Is their anger real? Is their pain real?” Jasper flinched when he felt dry yet comforting fingers on his burned cheek. “Is this burn what’s real?”
Jasper turned to him again. “I don’t know. Yes. No.” He closed his eyes and opened them, holding back a curse. “Of course they’re angry and hurting, and of course my face got burned. I don’t understand what you’re getting at.”
“You’re right, in some measure.” He removed his hand from Jasper’s face. The spot he touched felt refreshingly cool. Then soothing warmth replaced the fading coolness. He lifted a tentative hand to his cheek and swallowed. The uneven skin caused by the burn was now smooth. He lifted his eyes to the man.
“You’re right in your assessment,” the stranger continued, “and yet you fail to recognize that there is a much greater reality, and this reality has the power to alter what you believe to be set in stone. It has the power—”
“To heal,” Jasper finished for him, fingers still groping at his restored skin.
“You’re already beginning to see.” The man smiled again.
Jasper looked at the people: Adrian, Joel, Brody, the phantom that was his bleeding son, his mom and dad, Penny, Renata. His eyes locked on Renata’s. Her mouth curved into a mocking smirk and her dark eyes bore into him. The familiar guilt gripped his heart and stuck like a knife. She had every right—
Her image began to shift, different parts of her spastically moving to the left and to the right, reminding him of bad television reception. At one point he could see right through her. He furrowed his brow and looked at the man beside him, who only smiled as if all of this was perfectly normal. He faced Renata. Her image continued to shift, but her expression remained, still cutting him deep. He had an urge to weep and beg her for forgiveness.
“There is a lot you don’t know, and what you think you know clouds your judgment.”
“I don’t judge her,” Jasper replied to the stranger’s voice.
“But don’t you? You have told yourself stories about what she has done, about what she thinks. But do you know the truth?”
Jasper had never thought of it that way before. He was trapped in guilt, and it altered the way he saw everything. Did guilt speak the truth? It was the first time he questioned it.
“Renata craves freedom, Jasper. Won’t you release her?”
Jasper let out a quick breath, overcome by astonishing new possibilities. It felt like his present world was gradually peeling away, revealing glimpses of radiant light he never knew hid behind it all. He let this new light into his body, his soul, willing to be swallowed whole by it. As he pushed a trembling hand through his hair, he watched Renata’s image continue in spastic movements. Her form began to blink out and back again, then faster. Finally, her whole body flickered like florescent lights in a windstorm before vanishing completely. Jasper let out another breath and staggered back, feeling both lighter and weaker at the same time. A strong hand was pressed against his back, steadying him.
“Welcome to a whole new world,” the man said as Jasper’s eyes shifted to the other people still standing before them.
Jasper set his gaze on Adrian and Joel. Joel’s face twisted in grief, and Adrian’s in anger.
“You have the power, Jasper,” the stranger who was not so much like a stranger said. “Are you going to hold yourself responsible for their well being, knowing you are incapable of saving them? Or are you going to trust someone who knows what they need and cares even more than you do?” The man’s voice held a twinge of sorrow. It rose in pitch as if he was about to cry. Jasper looked at him, swallowing. A question formed in his brain and he didn’t know why it hadn’t occurred to him earlier.
“Who are you?” he breathed.
The man waited a second before responding, studying Jasper’s eyes. “I am the one who knows you better than even your enemies.”
Jasper’s lungs felt bereft of breath at the words. How could someone he had never seen or met before know him so well? He realized he wanted it to be true. He wanted this man to be his friend, because he understood him better than anyone ever had. He couldn’t breathe because his longing was so great, and yet his desire to be known fought against his fear of being discovered for who he really was.
“Jasper, you can’t save them—Penny, your brother and nephew and mom, your son and Brody. You think you have let them down, and as a result you are a despicable person.” Jasper let out a moan, overcome.
“Let go,” the man said, placing his hand over Jasper’s heart. “Let go of your expectations for yourself and your false perceptions…” The man moved closer and pressed his hand more firmly against his chest, making him want to weep. For gratitude or sorrow, he didn’t quite know. “…Be free,” the man whispered, his face so close to his that his breath spread over Jasper’s face. He was surprised at how sweet and refreshing that breath was, coming from a man who had spent who knew how long in this forsaken place.
“Look at them,” the man said after a moment, gently removing his hand. His warm touch lingered on his chest as he turned again to face his loved ones. “Do they condemn you?”
As he looked from one to another, each of the images, excluding his father, began to shift just like the image of Renata had. They were quickly fading. Jasper let out a breathy laugh. “No,” he said. The images blinked out so that only his father remained standing on the sand, arms crossed and scowling.
“Then neither do I,” Jasper’s companion said. Unbidden tears poured down Jasper’s face as he stared at his father.
“What about my father? I can’t change the past. He’s already gone.”
“Does he possess the power to alter the direction of your life?”
Jasper swallowed, not knowing how to answer. It sure felt like he did. He was never able to please him or live up to his requirements. He was never good enough for him.
“You will always wander if you aim to please man.”
Just like that, huh?
“I failed him,” Jasper said. He felt his jaw flex.
“Just like you failed Renata?” He felt a strong hand around his arm. “Just like her, Jasper, you have projected a false reality onto your view of your father. There is much you didn’t know about his inner thoughts. He expressed his own pain and regret by pointing the finger at you. But you didn’t fail him. He loved you more than he was ever able to communicate.”
Jasper’s whole body started to tremble. Could it be true? He stared at his father, whose expression didn’t change. Had his father been in as much or even more pain than himself? Had he really loved him?
“All you have to do is forgive. Release him…” The man squeezed his arm and breathed, “…for the sake of your own destiny.”
Jasper’s body shook and his fists closed in protest. A war raged inside him. Yet he had already encountered an astounding new reality. Could he let this one offense hold all of this reality’s fullness back from him? Jasper screamed to the sky, tears dripping off his chin, and released his fingers so that they tensed and spread at his sides. He dropped to his knees, looked again at the image of his father. He sucked in the dry desert air through his nose as deeply as he could and let it out via his mouth in one long, slow stream. After blinking once, his father simply vanished. A glinting object sat in the sand where his father’s feet had been planted.
Everything around Jasper grew still. The desert winds quieted yet still tickled his scalp; the sound of sand shifting under their feet ceased. Strength returned to him. And peace. Jasper stood and watched in silence as his new companion walked forward. It was like a dream—but how could one feel such peace in a dream? Maybe he was waking up from a dream. His eyes were glued to the man who knew him like a close friend. The breeze danced with the torn rags covering the man’s body, whipped strands of his long hair every which way. Somehow, despite all the dirt and grime and the flaking, sun-baked skin, this man possessed a kind of beauty he couldn’t explain.
Jasper continued to watch as the man knelt with his back to him and gently picked up the shiny object. He stood again and simply turned and walked back at the same steady pace, a small bronze chain dangling from his fist. Once he stood before Jasper again, he lifted his occupied fist, opened his fingers and looked down at the object. Jasper could already see what it was. His stomach leapt. The man handed him the compass. Jasper turned it over to reveal an engraved city on its back with silky white pearl embedded into the hill it sat upon. He met the man’s eyes. The smile in his eyes was accentuated by his slightly upturned lips and a reassuring nod. Jasper’s fingers enveloped the gift as he wiped tears off his face with his other hand. The man turned and headed the other direction.
“Come,” he said. “I have something to show you.” He walked toward the rock Jasper originally saw him leaning on.
Jasper’s heart still beat like the wings of a bird released from a cage. He followed, having no reason not to, curiosity tugging at the crossroads of his mind. He wanted to know more about this man and his purpose. The man stopped at the large boulder and looked down at its base. Then he lifted his eyes to Jasper, who had stopped two feet away.
“Our enemy once told me this was a hunk of bread. Or could be.” He shook his head. “He sure likes to play on our weaknesses. I was nearly starved—forty days without physical sustenance. But what he was really after was convincing me to believe that I had to prove my identity before claiming it as my own.” He paused and looked at the rock. “Temptation at its best,” he said, looking up again.
Jasper wasn’t sure he understood, but it didn’t feel right to ask for an explanation. Who was “our enemy?” And what did identity have to do with a rock becoming food? The man looked at him as if reading his mind, then turned around and continued walking toward the larger cliff. Jasper followed, thinking that’s what the man expected. While the man’s back was turned, Jasper rubbed the back of his neck self-consciously. His companion possessed an uncanny sense of knowledge. The man stopped before the cliff, stretched his neck back to look up, then turned to him. Jasper stepped up beside him, close enough to reach out and touch the rock face.
“He took me to the top of this cliff. And when he did, I could look out and see the world. Every kingdom in one panoramic shot—people moving about, governors and rulers in their seats of power.” He chuckled. “Even different weather patterns displayed over each geographical area. It was overwhelming. Breathtaking.” He stopped, looking up again and closing his eyes. “And it was mine to claim. But, considering it was currently under the domain of our enemy, I couldn’t claim it unless I bowed down to worship him. He knew what he was doing, see; but he didn’t really.” The man looked at Jasper again, his face growing serious and his eyes becoming even deeper wells. “He didn’t understand where the real power rested. On one hand, I had all power to claim my divinity and take what was mine—and this he played off of. And yet the real power was found in trusting what I could not yet see—in resisting what was right in front of my face, what I could reach out and touch, and putting my faith in a greater reality and a greater purpose. See, my journey was not over.” He smiled. “It was only just beginning. It wasn’t my time to claim what I deserved. It was my time to surrender, for the sake of the freedom of all generations.”
Before Jasper could even process the ramifications of what he was revealing, he was pulled up by a sudden gust of wind. He tripped over his feet after being set down on solid ground and nearly fell. The man caught him. Jasper struggled to regain his breath. When he finally did, he looked out and then down. He swallowed his rising panic and took a step back. They were standing atop a high building. The wind blew stronger up here.
“Live on the edge but don’t throw yourself down,” his companion said, steadying him again with a hand on his back. Jasper looked at him, incredulous, taking in huge gulps of air. Was he crazy?
“Our enemy took me up here next. The top of the Temple of my people. That’s when he rained the “ifs” on me in a torrential downpour. If you really are who you say you are, throw yourself down. The angels will come and save you, and don’t you know it.” Jasper’s eyes widened. Who was he really standing in the presence of? Because surely, those rags must be lying.
“And I did know it,” the man continued. “The impossible was my domain. But put my father to the test by deliberately provoking his power?” He looked out at the vast desert below. “Madness.” He turned to face Jasper, stepping closer. Their breath mingled. Jasper’s heart ran hard, as if trying to escape this inferno of a man. “If,” he said. “If,” he repeated. “If,” he whispered, stepping yet closer so that their foreheads would touch if either bowed his head. Jasper’s insides quivered and then collapsed, or so it felt. The undoing dropped him to his knees. The man knelt too. “If you are any good,” he said, gently grasping the sides of Jasper’s face with rough hands. Jasper was too ashamed and too overwhelmed to look him in the eye. “If you aren’t a failure, if you are a man, if you have anything to contribute…” Jasper began to weep. “If you were a good person, you never would have hurt all those people. So prove that you are worthy. Claim what you think is yours. And if you don’t, or you can’t…” The man touched his forehead to his. “…you’ll be damned forever.”
His words insinuated accusation, but his tone revealed an understanding. This man was not condemning him.
Even though he had every right.
“Jasper, look at me.” Jasper’s body shook with another sob. “Please.” With much effort, he lifted his eyes. The man’s gentle expression brought more fresh tears. “Stop thinking you have to atone for your failures by becoming a different person with a different life. Running from the past will never free you. You will never become who you are if you seek your whole life to prove what you can never prove. And what you don’t have to prove. Find your life…” he swallowed, searching his eyes. “…in my way.”
“How?” Jasper managed, face crumpling again.
“By letting go. And letting me and my father be the judges. And accepting our love as your new way of life. You must go forward without regret.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I already paid for them. Because I embraced my identity without trying to earn or prove it. Your regrets, your failures, they may as well be mirages in a desert. Our enemy uses mirages and makes them look like the only truth. They take up the whole view, when really there is much, much more.”
Jasper nodded, only beginning to understand. He faintly remembered the ranch owner, Flint, saying something about a mirage the first time he found himself in this strange vision, when Renata stood pointing the finger at him. The man removed his hands then put one hand around the back of Jasper’s neck and pulled him into an embrace. Jasper melted at the love that encompassed his pain, vowing in his heart to follow this man to the ends of the earth.
The man released him.
“Compelled by love. That’s my way.”
“So,” Jasper said, swallowing. “If I’m supposed to turn my life around, I take it I’m not dead?” He chuckled, then sniffed.
The man smiled. “Have you ever really lived until now?”
Jasper had to wonder. Was there ever a time when he wasn’t running from something or trying to please someone? It dawned on him how exhausting it all was. If what the man said was true, he could be free without the obligation of compensating for his past. Could it be? Could another person actually have paid for all the things he did wrong so that he could start with a fresh slate? Jasper looked into the man’s eyes again. They spoke no lies. “Are you for real?” he whispered, meaning to say it to himself. The question sounded absurd.
The man held out his hand, palm up. “Let me see your compass.”
Jasper had nearly forgotten about it, having stuffed it in his pocket after the man gave it back to him. He pulled it out, letting his eyes linger on its face as he handed it to him. The man flipped it around and placed it on his other palm with its engraved backing showing. He swept the fingers of his opposite hand over the engraving. Lifted his eyes to Jasper. “More real than you know,” he said, handing the tool back to him. “You’ll have direction now, Jasper.”
The man stood. When he did, Jasper caught his breath as the sensation of falling shot up through his body. It took less than a second before they were on the desert floor again. Well, almost. They sat together on the large boulder. The man beside him rested an arm over one knee while his other leg dangled off the edge. Again, Jasper struggled to regain a normal sense of respiration. He let out a breathy laugh.
“I already asked, but…” Jasper began. “…Who are you? Do you have a name?”
“I have many names. But some of those closest to me, they like to call me Yeshua.”
Jasper looked out at the landscape, his gaze zeroing in on a tiny whirlwind of sand some distance away. Yeshua. He seemed to have heard the name before, but couldn’t recall where.
“Jesus,” he heard the man say under his breath. Jasper turned to him. But when he did, the man was gone. He quickly stood to his feet as he turned to face the cliff. The man had simply vanished. He released a breath of disbelief and squatted. He felt his adam’s apple move up and down as he squinted up at the top of the cliff.
Jesus. Had that really just happened? Jesus? He was real, then. It felt like he just learned that Santa Claus was not a made up character for children. But this—this was never how he would have imagined Jesus to be.