In July, I enjoyed a once-in-a-lifetime writing retreat/workshop, led by my favorite author in a Scottish castle. The extrovert in me got to meet 30 other writers, who are My People; the author part of me found new critique partners and encouraging feedback; and the fangirl part of me learned that Maggie Stiefvater is as delightful in person as she is online. Most importantly, I didn’t have to cook!
In preparation for the retreat, I read one of Maggie’s book series, The Raven Cycle, which follows five high schoolers who discover a magical forest in Virginia. Once they find it, they struggle to take their classes and homework as seriously as they used to, because the real world feels so mundane and unimportant by comparison.
That’s not the main plot, but I remembered it while I was reading about the Day of Pentecost.
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. (Acts 2:1-4 NIV)
It’s hard to imagine something more life-changing than witnessing the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, but the men and women in the upper room were in for one more surprise. J.D. Walt, a Wesleyan pastor, describes that moment as “the heretofore impenetrable seam between the Heavens and the Earth” dissolving, causing the separate realms to interpolate into “a seamless reality.” Jesus is in Heaven, but also on earth and in us, through the Holy Spirit.
This revelation changed everything for the disciples. They were radically changed and devoted themselves to the fledgling Church. Later, a highly respected Jewish leader named Saul encountered the resurrected Jesus, and his transformation was so great that he got a new name (Paul) and began to think of his impressive earthly achievements as “garbage” compared to knowing Christ.
So why, for me, does being a Christian so often feel like a duty? I believe that’s what happens when we focus too much on religion and not enough on the person of Jesus. It’s far easier on our mortal brains to think about tasks, lists, and chores, about “shoulds” and “thou shalt nots.” But how much less exciting! How much less alive! Jesus wants a relationship. He’s inviting us to an ongoing interaction.
Now, an invisible spiritual realm is indeed a hard concept for people who, like you and I, are steeped in observational science. Since Christianity has had many “revivals” and “awakenings” in the last 2,000 years, I am clearly not the first human to struggle with the weight of spiritual truth.
Stiefvater grew up Catholic, although she no longer counts herself religious, so I doubt she’s ignorant of the long tradition of fantasy books using magic as a metaphor for real spirituality. It takes the series I mentioned four books and a year of in-book time for her characters to come to grips with their discovery of magic, even though the magic had been there all along. The characters continue going to school and doing homework (at least as much as they ever did), but that’s no longer the focus of their lives.
Similarly, while our earthly existence is critically important, it is short compared to the life of our souls. The more we understand that the spiritual realm is real and affects us, the more we’ll find that it and our relationship with Jesus feel alive and real, even though we can't see them.
Sleep is often used as a euphemism for death in the Bible, but I submit that we need to both wake up and be resurrected. Jesus has taken care of the second one for us, if we let him, but the second—waking up to spiritual reality—is our challenge and opportunity every morning.
"Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you." (Ephesians 5:14b NIV)
(As a side note, if you’re thinking about international travel, maybe save that for next year. Air travel systems are still struggling to regain pre-Covid efficiency.)