In Celje, Slovenia in 2006, my missionary companion and I were in charge of a lesson for family home evening. We decided on an interactive lesson on the Tree of Life as depicted in the book of 1st Nephi.
We got a rope, secured one end to the wall, and taped a picture of Christ just above where the rope ended at the front of the little room we used as a chapel. The other end of the rope hung lamely on the ground in the middle space between the 8 rows of black chairs.
We crossed our fingers, as we always did that somehow a miracle would happen and a new face would appear at our meager gathering of misfits.
Alas, the same old crowd of 3 Slovene members and 8 missionaries.
After a song and a prayer, the time for our interactive lesson had come. As my companion read the verses describing the mist of darkness, the great and spacious building, and the glorious white fruit at the end of the rod of iron, I blindfolded Peter.
I spun him around, gave him the end of the rope and proceeded to mock and jeer at him to provide a distraction to his quest.
In the end, Peter made it to the destination- the Christ picture. Despite the jeering, despite the darkness. The rope won the day. We concluded that the rod was the only thing we could really trust to get us to heaven in these dark, confusing days we knew as life. So we must cling to it as if our lives depended on it.
Because they did.
This is how I've always thought of life- tricky, dark, confusing. A million ways to get off course, a million ways to screw things up and miss the goal at the end - heaven. And only one narrow way to get things right.
Nothing but the rod could be trusted.
In the years since, I've deconstructed and re-constructed these questions of "what is the goal of life?" "What must I do to get there?" "Who is God and where is He on this journey?"
Much of the old tree of life analogy has been discarded in the construction process. Some remains.
My favorite part of that analogy is the description of the fruit that is so desirable. It is described simply as "the love of God."
If ever there was anything more delicious on this Earth than unconditional love, I don't know it. It remains the fruit I seek.
For most of my life though, I thought this love was saved for the end of the journey, withheld until I proved myself through the tests of darkness, temptation, and distraction.
For years, I thought of sin as a glass wall of my own making between me and God. Each wayward thought, each act of laziness adding a layer to the ever-thickening plexiglass.
And when I longed to be with God and feel his love? I would first have to take down my wall, layer by layer through repentance.
So tragic that wall. Always barricading me from the love I craved but hadn't yet earned.
I've since discovered that the only tragedy was me believing that there could ever be a wall between me and my maker at all.
I now see "sin" not as a wall built by disobedience, but as a turning of my gaze, however so slightly away from unconditional love. And as soon as I have even the slightest inkling to turn my head an eighth of a degree? A tenth? A hundredth toward love? There it is. There He is. There She is. With me all that time I was gazing elsewhere. Hand in mine all that time. No walls in sight.
That's the big secret - heaven is God's love and heaven is NOW. It is not confined to the end of the rope. We don't have to pass any tests to get there. Whenever we look toward unconditional love, when we let it envelop us, when we pass it on to another, there it is. Heaven.
Tree of life 2.0:
We are all wandering about. Some clinging to this rope, that rod, this building, that building. All of us looking for the same things: Love. Worthiness. Safety. Wholeness. Community. Union.
We try this. We try that. We stumble about in the dark. The worst fate isn't being in the midst of darkness. It's believing we are alone there.
Each traveler, no matter where they are, no matter who they are with, no matter their cloaks or colors, each of us have a guide. A bright, glowing being. Holding our hand.
Defiantly, we try to go it alone. Ignoring our guide. We look about. We control. We run.
The guide stays with us all the while. Just waiting for us to notice. To see. To allow the light in. To notice that the light we are so desperately seeking is within us already.
That's the big secret: we already have everything we long for.
Here's another: that great and spacious building we are so afraid of? It's not some wicked outsiders we must run from. In addition to the light, each wanderer also has a great and spacious building within them.
Both the light of creation and the darkness of ego in us all the while.
While most travelers reach and cling and run - grasping for the external - the fruit, the rod, the building, safety, worth; the wise travelers take a seat. They look at their guide in the eye and smile. They relish and feast on the deliciousness of the fruit already glowing white and bright within them. They acknowledge the darkness both within and without, make friends with it, and go right on feasting on the fruit. Right there in the dark.
These wise travelers offer the fruit of acceptance to their fellow travelers. They offer a hand, acting as a temporary guide when their friends cannot see their own guide standing beside them.
And when they feel the urge to run? To hide? To cling? They take a deep breath, look toward their guide and notice where they are. Heaven.