My breath catches at the back of my throat as I stumble down the long, dark hallway. My feet scrape through the dirt; I barely have the strength to lift them. Through the flickering light and curling, sooty smoke of the oil torches I can see the end nearing, and I swallow hard, gritting my teeth to muster the strength and not fall.
My left hand, the one I always use subconsciously, hangs limp at my side. Each step jolts it, sending shards of pain scratching through the cracked bones. I can feel my elbow poking at the skin like a needle; any moment it’ll poke through. Already the blood has gathered and is pooling, building up pressure.
With my right hand I steady myself against the wall. I try to avoid the hot drips of oil from the torches, but even with my best efforts the rivulets scald my fingertips and palm. But it is better than falling, so I continue.
A shove from behind catches me off guard and I begin to fall. Faster, Christian.
I throw myself to the left, hoping to land against the wall instead of crashing to the ground. It is a good plan, except for the hard cement wall that collides full force with my elbow. The cracked bone shears through the skin, relieving the pressure but causing numbing pain as it tears through. Blood flows down my forearm, which for a moment feels refreshing, a cool liquid, but that is soon forgotten in the pain.
A hand grabs my hair and yanks me away from the wall. I feel something else tear and then the cool liquid again as I stumble onward. Only a few more feet….
There is also the noise. Through the pounding of my heart in my ears I can make out the roar of the stadium behind me, the sickening crunch of metal ripping through bone and flesh, the cheers of bloodthirsty exultation from the crowd, the panicked cries of a little girl sobbing for mercy. A voice echoes loudly over the P.A. system and the crowd reacts gleefully. Another recantment.
I pray for strength, but it’s nothing more than a raspy groan.
And there are the sounds from up ahead. Shouts, thuds of abuse muffled by the cement walls. It used to be that such sounds would have been the football team gearing up for a game, but the players have been replaced by blood lust, the game traded for the sport of torture.
At last the door. The hand shoves me again, up against it, and then the door opens and I stumble in, the putrid smell of musty blood and excrement slamming me in the face. A body lies limp in front of the door and I fall. I try to roll onto my better side but in the darkness my right hand lands on someone’s leg and my body rotates onto my left side. I hear more cracks and roll onto my back, my teeth clenched to hold in the screams that tear at my lungs.
Hands pull at me, working me toward the wall and away from the guard. In the dim light of a single candle I see a form stride across the room. Behind it a body slumps to the ground, leaving a streak of blood on the bent locker that glimmers dully. Then the form is upon me. A fist strikes me fully upon the cheek, and I feel something give way. More throbs in my eye.
My head rings as the hands continue to pull me back into the corner, into the blessed darkness and away from the door. Laughter comes from the form and the hand that pushed me down the hall, and they spit on us. They walk to the door, kicking with their boots, stamping down on any limb close by. Then the door slams and we are alone.
The room is packed. We line the walls, crowd the floor, cluster on every bench, in the stalls, in the showers. The air hangs dead, saturated with the smell of blood, and I vomit, adding to the slickness of the floor. As I slide toward the corner I feel rocks and shattered glass from long-broken lights grinding into my back, slicing through the bruises that have softened since earlier that day. I give up trying to protect myself and let my body hang limp, barely cradling what remains of my left arm.
But the hands still pull me, and I at last come to a stop. They prop me up against the wall. Someone puts a shirt between my head and the cement. Another wraps something around my bleeding arm. I gasp for air, each breath a ragged knife that jerks through my lungs.
But I am here.
Did you recant? a voice whispers from the right. No, says another as I wearily, imperceptibly shake my head. He wouldn’t be here if he had.
Murmurs ripple through the room that I did not recant, but I begin to weep, alone knowing how close I came. I remember standing in the stadium, seeing the bleachers filled wit people, literally feeling the heat of their hatred as they scorned me, as they hurled their words and fiery desecrations down on me. RECANT! bellowed the voice over the speakers. The roars and jeers and cheers of the crowd pierced my ears, deafening me. RECANT! thundered the voice, shaking me to my core. My legs trembled, my cracked lips pulled in vaporous air, and my hoarse throat screamed No! No! I will not betray my God! I cannot! He loves me! The swarming crowd in the stands leaned in and cursed His name. Those crowded around me shouted in my ears that He was dead, that He did not love me or He would have saved me with His angels from heaven. Your god has abandoned you!
You are not worthy to be saved!
I crumbled to my knees, unable to bear it. I closed my eyes and cowered to the ground. I could not reject my God! I could not! He is good! He is good!
I opened my eyes and looked at the ground. The sound had become a dull roar; there was a ringing in my ears. He had to be good…He had to be good….
But what if He was not?
And then hands took hold of me, threw me across the ground. A boot kicked at my flailing arm and snapped it, another pounded on it and it was crushed. Dirt scraped across my face, and then I was picked up and thrown into the hallway.
They do not know how close I came, and so they murmur but I weep. I plead for the grace of God to hold on but a little longer.
I feel breath. Someone is leaning toward my face. A young, soft voice rasps in the darkness. The Lord is good, and His mercies endure forever. The Lord is good, and His mercies endure forever. The Lord is good, and His mercies endure forever…. Over and over she says it, a water that washes my soul and renews my strength. I close my eyes and weep, and I confess the faithfulness of the Lord. I confess the goodness of my God. My voice cracks and is hoarse, but I speak into the still air and move it with my confession. The Lord is good, and His mercies endure forever. I will extol Him who rides on the clouds. The Lord is trustworthy in all He promises and faithful in all He does. My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord.
A hand grasps mine, and in the darkness we weep for the goodness of our God.
The door crashes open and slams into the bodies. Those who enter laugh, and one empties a bucket of glass onto the floor. Just a present for you, the first man jeers. Now who is next?
I open my eyes. They have adjusted to the darkness, and I can see better. I see the faces gathered around me, friends I have known and held close, and thank God that He has kept them from falling.
Then I see across the room another friend, one whom I knew before this time. When the time was good we fasted and prayed, we studied the Bible and worshiped. We stood firm when others fell away and encouraged each other in the Lord. We lived and ate together. We shared dreams together and grew in faith as he told me of his vision of that blessed New Jerusalem, that glorious city of gold which has been prepared for us. Our faith was kindled as we talked that day, dreaming of when our Lord would return in all His glory and all His splendor and bring us into His everlasting kingdom.
But now I see his eyes quaver. I see his limbs grow weak. I see in his eyes what I felt in my heart when I cowered before the crowd. I see his heart quail within his chest and my own heart stops. I am instantly washed over with dread as the soldiers move through the room, looking for the weak eyes that signal a weak faith. No, Lord! Don’t let him fall!
They see him.
He looks up and meets their eyes, and he weeps.
They take him.
I throw myself away from the wall. My feet slip on the bloody floor and I crash onto my elbow, but I am propelled forward. No! Do not fall! I try to cry out but my voice lacks the power to be heard. I am weak, my body is weak, and my strength is gone, but they near the door and I shake with horror that my beloved one might fall away.
I climb laboriously to my feet and stumble forward. Glass cuts me. The movement causes my stomach to lurch and heave within me. But they are near the door. They are near the door!
They are in the threshold. I cry out, barely a whisper. I ignore the shards on the floor.
And I take hold of his arm. The man spins around and strikes me in the face, but I keep hold of my beloved one and turn him to me with my only good hand. I grasp his arm and pull him close, staring him in the eye.
Remember the golden city! Remember the golden city!!
He stares at me blankly. I shake him and cry out through sobbing, gritted teeth, Remember the golden city!
…and life comes into his eyes. I see in his eyes again the vision, again the wondrous dream, and see peace, indefinable peace, come and rest upon his heart. The fear leaves, and somehow, in that torturous room, he smiles. He grips my shoulder and leans in, as a brother.
The golden city.
They take him and the door is shut.
The golden city.
I slump to the ground and weep, my prayers for his strength rising fervently from my lips. I hear whispers ripple through the room and as one we pray that his heart will be strengthened, that he may be able to stand his ground, and after he has done everything, to stand.
The crowd roars with glee. We pray all the more.
The crowd shrieks with a thirst for blood. We cry out the more.
The door is flung open. A body is thrown in and the door shut.
The body lies still. Then slowly, painfully, it rises from the ground, and my beloved one turns to me, and through the blood dripping down his face I see that his eyes are firm with faith.
Remember the golden city, for this is but a moment. Then we shall be there.
Remember the golden city.
(Rev. 21:2, 18)