Managing Editor: David Sper
Cover Design: Terry Bidgood
©1999 RBC Ministries--Grand Rapids, MI 49555 Printed in USA
The following pages are based on a story that has been told from one generation to another from the beginning of time.
It is retold here with the hope of inspiring new or renewed interest in the unfolding drama of where we came from and where we are going.
As you read, see if you recognize the plot. See if you can find yourself in the story. See if you can find the answers you've been looking for.
Martin R. De Haan II, President of RBC Ministries.
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A great king emerges from an unknown past to expand his kingdom and to fulfill his vision for a free world that shares his values.
When the inhabitants of the new world declare their independence from him, the king shows his true greatness. Instead of using his power to force them into submission, he begins a long process of developing a relationship with the few who are willing to make peace with him.
The king's heart is seen most clearly when he disguises himself as a servant and at immeasurable personal cost rescues the freedom and the future of a world that has fallen under the control of a hardened rebel leader.
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Long ago, before dinosaurs roamed the earth, before fossil fuels formed beneath ocean floors, before the beginning of time itself, there was a great king. This king had no ancestors and no teachers. No one knows where he came from.
What we do know about this king is that he emerged from an unknown past to expand the borders of his kingdom. He appeared with a vision for a free world where citizens would live forever without boredom or regret.
While most of the cosmos remained barren, the king reached down and lifted vast islands from the dark deep waters that covered the earth. Then he transformed the dry ground into a paradise of rain forests and grasslands. He made high mountains, deep valleys, and white sandy beaches. He designed environments of enormous complexity. With unending attention to detail, the king filled the earth with color, texture, sound, and fragrance. By everything he made, he showed the breadth of his personality and greatness.
With endless humor and practical insight he populated air, land, and water with living creatures of every imaginable shape and kind. From camels to chimpanzees, from microscopic insects to giant redwood forests, and from alligators to zebras the king designed an endless variety of plants and animals.
In all that he did, the king showed his ability to make something out of nothing and to bring order out of chaos. By the immensity and complexity of his universe, he showed that nothing is too large or too small to escape his attention or concern.
As Clay's eyes opened, it was a moment to remember. Nothing could be taken for granted. Everything was new. Everything was fresh. Everything was full of mystery and potential. Everything fascinated the likeness who was not yet aware of himself.
The king led Clay to a place called the king's garden. It was filled with every kind of evergreen, hardwood, and palm. Here Clay walked among mangos, pomegranates, oranges, almonds, and every other kind of tree that was good for food.
As Clay walked among the trees, he sensed that the garden was full of eyes and that all eyes were on him. He smiled as he caught the gaze of a white-tailed deer and then reached out to stroke the thick fur of a grey wolf that left the doe's side to greet him. He laughed as a lamb pushed the wolf aside and rubbed his head against his leg.
"All of these are mine," the king said. "And I'm putting them into your care."
The king was not offended by the caretaker's loneliness. Instead, he put Clay into a deep sleep, took a small piece of him, and then molded it into a second likeness. When the caretaker woke up and saw what had been made from his own body, he smiled. The new likeness smiled back. He spoke, and she spoke back to him. They laughed, and before long they were enjoying together the work the king had given them to do. Later, when Clay learned his companion would become the mother of his own likenesses, he began calling her Zoe (meaning "life").
These were good days for Clay and Zoe. They had a wonderful relationship with the king and with each other. On balmy evenings they all walked together among the trees on the fertile grounds he had placed under their care.
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The king had done so much for Clay and Zoe. Everything in their garden home was a gift from him. But more than anything, it was the king himself who had won their hearts. He knew how to be playfully unpredictable, while at the same time letting them know that they could always depend on him for what they couldn't do for themselves. He loved to hear them laugh and to see them drop what they were doing and run to him whenever they heard his voice in the garden.
In all that the king did for the caretakers, however, he was very wise. He never gave them too much of himself. Even though he could have controlled their every thought and action, he gave them the gift of freedom. The king even gave them enough space to walk away from him if they chose to do so. He knew that if they couldn't choose to turn their backs on him, they couldn't choose to love and trust him either. Without choice and expression, the king's vision for a free world could not be realized.
According to the king, the path of endless possibilities led to a fountain of youth. The other path of forbidden knowledge led to the waters of aging and dying. The problem was that neither Clay nor Zoe knew what "aging and dying" meant. They also didn't know why there was any knowledge that would be off limits.
All they could see were two trees and a fork in the road. It was as if the king was asking them to use their freedom to trust him. He had drawn a line in the sand. If they crossed this line they would die. But they didn't know what it meant to die.
The Logic Of The Rebel
In another kingdom long before the earth was created, the rebel was not a rebel. He was one of the most gifted and favored servants of the king. In that kingdom he was known as "Light Bearer." Some called him "Son of the Morning."
At some point, however, Light Bearer's freedom became an issue. With the flattering admiration of other servants echoing in his ears, he began to imagine what it would be like to be a leader rather than a follower. He became intrigued and then obsessed with the thought of forming an alternative kingdom. When Light Bearer finally decided to leave, he didn't go quietly. He convinced one-third of all the king's servants to join him. That was when Light Bearer became known not only as the rebel but as "the prince of darkness."
As the rebel wandered the universe looking for ways to make a name and kingdom for himself, he eventually heard about the caretakers. Since he had already enlisted one-third of the king's servants, the rebel thought he had a chance of making allies in the king's garden as well.
The rebel's disguise worked. Zoe listened as the creature talked. She was surprised to hear him suggest that the king was not as good as she and Clay thought he was. According to the animal, the king was holding out on them and even playing games that mocked their innocence. The creature said the king warned them about the path marked by the tree of forbidden knowledge only because he didn't want them to know what he knew.
The caretakers had talked often about the wisdom of the king. They wondered where he had come from and how he could know so much about everything. They had already learned a great deal from him. They had laughed together as he teased them with questions and riddles that stirred up their curiosity and imagination. They also had discovered that their own relationship had deepened as the king had shared more of himself with them.
Now, however, all that they had learned from the king didn't seem to be enough. What happened next would soon be the great turning point in caretaker history. Because Zoe believed that knowledge of any kind must be desirable, she started down the forbidden path and motioned for Clay to follow.
The caretaker's legs trembled as he looked at Zoe. He knew the rebel had misled her. He remembered hearing the king describe what would happen if they ever took this path. In that moment, Clay felt trapped between Zoe, the king, and his own curiosity. He had been warned. But he had to do it. He wanted to go with Zoe to see what the king had withheld from them.
As Clay and Zoe started down the path together, it was as if they had taken a powerful drug. Their minds were altered. Their innocence was gone. They felt exposed. They wrapped the leaves of a vine around themselves and struggled in their minds to find a way to cover their mistake. Never before had they felt the emotions of shame, guilt, and embarrassment.
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In their loss of innocence, the caretakers changed in ways they could not have anticipated. Before discovering the meaning of "what it was they didn't need to know," they never would have dreamed of hiding from the king or blaming each other for anything. In better times, they could only imagine doing good. Now even the nakedness that had been a sign of their innocence became something they wanted to cover. In their loss, the caretakers started to be more concerned for themselves than for each other. Together they sensed a growing resentment toward the king.
These profound changes in the caretakers' personalities prompted the king's next move. After making clothes from animal skins to replace the leaves they had wrapped around themselves, the king prepared to evict his caretakers from his garden paradise. If he allowed them to stay, Clay and Zoe would try to retrace their steps back to the path of endless possibilities. If they could find the fountain of youth, they would try to reverse the aging and dying process that had begun in them. The king knew that with unlimited time and freedom, the caretakers would become increasingly independent and alienated not only from him but from each other as well. For their own sakes, he had to remove them from the garden. Now only through a death they had never experienced could they return completely to the one who had made them to share his existence.
In time, more sons and daughters were born to Clay and Zoe. Then sons and daughters were born to sons and daughters until the earth began to fill with children of all ages. In between birth and death, just about everyone lived with an everdiminishing knowledge of the king.
Future generations of caretakers took on the look of their past. One by one they declared their independence from the king as soon as they were old enough to do so. While a few notable exceptions remained faithful to him, the story of the generations became as repetitive as the rising and setting of the sun.
Even after a catastrophic flood wiped out most of the earth's caretakers, the children of the survivors continued to declare their right of self-rule. Those who were true to the king remained few in number and inconsistent in character.
As the king's citizens drifted from his values and vision, they became less and less like him. The sons of Clay dominated and exploited the daughters of Zoe. The daughters of Zoe learned to secretly resent and even hate the sons of Clay. The strong oppressed the weak. Most of the world became obsessed with the politics of power. Violence and warfare became common.
At some point, thoughtful people became alarmed. To reverse the trends that were driving families apart, someone came up with a vision for the future that would pull people together. The plan called for the construction of a great city that would offer so many attractions and services that no one would want to live far from it. With a city center reaching to the clouds, the enormity of the buildings would be such that they would inspire a sense of spirituality. All who entered would be overwhelmed by emotions of wonder and awe. All who walked its streets would feel inspired by the endless possibilities of human cooperation.
The vision was so compelling that it received almost unanimous support from all who heard about it. Optimism grew. With a common cause like building this great city, many believed they could accomplish anything they agreed to do together.
The great king saw what was happening. He knew the city of cooperation was the brainchild of the "prince of darkness." When finished, it would promise a vision similar to the king's but grounded in the values of the rebel. Those who went there would learn to hope in endless possibilities by believing in themselves and one another.
To keep that new world order from happening, the king intervened. Suddenly there was confusion on the construction site. Communication was disrupted. Individuals of the same family could talk among themselves, but they couldn't understand anyone from another family. Within hours, all work came to a standstill. Eventually they scattered throughout the world.
The king knew how often the woman had cried herself to sleep. She cried not only for herself but for her husband, whose parents had made his life miserable by giving him a name that meant "exalted father." She hated knowing that the "exalted father's" inability to have children was a big joke in the community.
By caretaker standards, time had run out. They were both well past child-bearing years. Yet on more than one occasion the king told them that through their descendants his vision for the future would be realized. The king even gave the old man a new name that meant "father of many."
Then, when the man was almost 100 years old and his wife nearly 90, the impossible happened. The king did what he said he would do. He gave them a child in their old age. The king caused them to feel so overwhelmed and overjoyed that they named their baby "laughter."
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The early years of the new family were not impressive. Other than some family arguments and fights with the neighbors, the most memorable event occurred when about 70 members of the family left home and traveled south looking for food during a severe drought.
Because the king worked behind the scenes to prepare the way for them, the family found favor with the ruler of a southern empire. The prince of this southern nation gave them all the food they needed. He also gave them land to plant their own crops in the rich soil of a fertile river delta. Even though this southern empire was not home, the family found conditions on the delta favorable. There they built homes, raised their children, and harvested their crops.
Within a few generations, however, the family's growth and ever-increasing numbers frightened the neighbors. The prince who had done so much for them had died. New leaders of the south were concerned that if they didn't do something, they would be overrun and dominated by this fast-growing ethnic minority. So while native residents of the south still had the upper hand, they decided to turn the problem into an economic advantage. A new prince pressed the family into forced labor. By the crack and sting of the whip, tough field bosses squeezed sweat and tears from the children of Laughter. Soon the family was working long hours under a hot, southern sun making bricks for national building projects.
Under growing oppression, the family began to groan. Where was the king? Children of the family began to cry for help. Rising with the dust and smoke of the brickyards, their cries grew louder and louder. Where was the king? Why had he left them alone?
The family had mixed feelings. Who in the world did this relative think he was? Did he have delusions of grandeur? Or had he really heard from the great king? Their questions were soon answered when the relative showed them a series of superhuman credentials given to him by the king. When family leaders saw evidence of the king's own signature, they became overwhelmed with emotion. The king had finally heard their cries for help.
To the family's disappointment, however, the initial efforts of the relative seemed to make matters worse. When he quoted the great king as saying to the prince, "Let my people leave," the prince became furious and tightened his grip on the family.
But in the days to follow, the prince of the south learned more than he wanted to know about the power of the great king. Through a series of national disasters, the king slowly but surely loosened the grip of the prince. The king unleashed plagues of flies, lice, and frogs on the people of the south. He polluted the national water system. He sent devastating storms and darkness. He took the lives of the first-born sons of all southern families. Then he made a path through a large body of water so they could escape.
The family was finally free. They had been freed in such a powerful way that the neighbors of the whole region were severely shaken. In animated discussions across the land, everyone talked about the family. Around watering holes in the daytime and around fires burning late into the night, the neighbors talked and argued about the family and their king.
Then in this severest of environments, where food could not be bought and where water could not be found, the king showed his ability to provide for his people. Overriding all laws of nature, the king gave them, seemingly out of thin air and bare rock, all the food and water they needed. Later, at the foot of a burning, smoking, shaking mountain, he taught the family how to live with one another and how to show their gratefulness to him.
The family soon learned that the king was a master teacher who often used drama and visual object lessons to make a point. In one highly emotional illustration, he required every head of household to bring a carefully selected animal to a pre-appointed place of sacrifice. There, depending on what the family could afford, the owner of a lamb, goat, or bird placed his hands on its head, as if to identify with the doomed creature. Then in the king's presence the offerer killed the animal with his own hands.
As members of the family watched the sacrifice, the children asked a lot of questions. Did the king like to see animals killed? If he created them, why would he want them to die? Why did an innocent animal have to die for wrongs they had done? Why couldn't they have sold the animal and given the money to the poor? While parents couldn't answer all the questions, one thing was clear: The king didn't want his people to die for their own wrongs. Yet, he wanted them to think and feel deeply about the consequences of their own behavior. Just as important, he wanted them to be able to enjoy living in his presence. After the sacrifice of an innocent animal, the family took the meat and enjoyed a meal together with the king's blessing.
The family was learning many lessons, but they also failed some important tests. One test occurred on the threshold of their new homeland. Spies who were sent ahead to scout out the land brought back a frightening report. In addition to finding abundant food and water, they had also seen giants that made the scouts feel like grasshoppers.
When the family heard the report, most of them decided this was as far as they were going. They were tired of being set up with great expectations, only to be disappointed and frightened by new threats and challenges. At moments like this, they wished they had never left the prince of the south. Under his whip they at least knew what to expect.
Their reluctance angered the king. So he decided to let those who refused to trust him die in the wilderness of their own choosing.
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Forty years later, after almost all the adults of the previous generation had been buried in the desert sand, the king prepared to do for the children what he had offered to do for their parents. Finally he was ready to lead them into the homeland he had promised. But they soon discovered that some of the old problems remained. There were still giants in the land. Their new houses were already occupied, and the present owners were determined to fight to protect their property.
The king, however, had answers to these problems. The present residents were not the true owners. They were living on his land, and they had forfeited the right to be there by their refusal to recognize him as king.
Even though it was difficult for the family to have to fight for land that was already occupied, they saw that the king was being kind to them. He was offering them houses they didn't build and harvests of crops they didn't plant. They saw that the land was good for fishing, hunting, and for business.
The family's new home offered more than a good quality of life. It also offered a strategic location from which to spread the king's vision. He was placing them on a landbridge between three major continents. The new homeland's western border lay on the shores of a great sea. Its main roads were some of the most important trade routes in the whole region. News of events that happened in the homeland would quickly travel along these trade routes in all directions of the compass.
In this new neighborhood, the king taught the family to remember him in everything they did and to depend on him for all of their needs. He taught them to work hard and to rest regularly. He showed them how to trust him for the early and later rains that were so necessary for a good harvest. For almost 400 years, the king taught the family to depend on him as their provider and protector.
During this period of family history a pattern emerged. When the king's citizens trusted him, asked for his help, and lived as he told them to, they usually enjoyed peace and protection from their neighbors. When they forgot about the king, became a law to themselves, and merely did what was right in their own eyes, they eventually found themselves overrun by enemies and grieving the loss of fathers and sons.
Each generation seemed to need to discover this pattern the hard way. Time after time, the family cycled through periods of prosperity, spiritual drifting, trouble, repentance, and rescue.
The king was saddened by the way his people made the request. They insisted on being like their neighbors without realizing that the king was trying to spare them the troubles that would come with a monarchy. He knew that a strong ruler would levy taxes and draft the family's children into his own service. In addition, the king had chosen the family to show the neighbors how to know and trust and love him as the king of kings and lord of lords.
The king's response was surprising. He gave the family what they wanted. He chose one of their own sons to wear the crown and assured them that if they and their king remained faithful to him, he would continue to take care of them.
As the leaders went, so went the family. When the leaders didn't follow the king, neither did most of the family. Lawlessness and violence increased. The king's vision for a land where people of all ethnic and national origins cared for one another appeared to be failing once again.
During this period of the declining spiritual health of the family, the king told his people that he wanted to give them a new heart. He also said that when they were willing, he would give them a king who would be greater than any other leader they had ever known. According to one of the messengers, he would be known as "The great king among us." This king would fulfill the vision of a place where men and women lived forever without boredom or regret. It would be a place where people of every ethnic and national origin respected and cared for one another.
The king's message fell on deaf ears. Those who wore the crown killed anyone who objected to the way they used their office and authority.
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Finally it became clear that the king's patience was no longer helping the family come to terms with their failures. At that point his concern became severe. He took down fences of protection they didn't even know he had built around them. He allowed the family's military defenses to be broken down by the armies of a prince of the east. Fathers, sons, and brothers slumped lifelessly into their own shadows. Children and wives were taken as spoils of war. For 70 years, surviving members of the family were unable to go home.
For a while, members of the family were filled with hope. They looked forward with great anticipation to this coming day when, according to the king's messengers, family fathers and sons would no longer go to war with the fathers and sons of other families. Machines of war would be recycled into farming equipment. Even nature would be at peace and the laws of a violent land would change.
It was common for a mother in the family to hope that it would be her son who would become the ruler of this coming age of peace.
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Then one day, one of the family's old men had a vision. With eyes wet with emotion he spoke as if something had happened that would change the world. At that same moment an old woman, who for years had given herself to the service of the great king, said she had seen a baby who was destined to deliver the family from their problems.
The birth of that child began a new day in the land. Even though he grew up in obscurity and spent his youth learning the skills of a common laborer, he was destined for greatness.
Finally, when he was about 30 years old, he began to make a name for himself. He said and did things no one had ever said or done before. He spoke about the great king and did superhuman things that caused large crowds to follow him. While speaking as if he knew the king intimately, this teacher touched blind eyes and made them see. He opened deaf ears and made them hear. He walked on water and the waters supported his weight. He spoke to violent storms and the winds obeyed him.
Even though there was nothing about the teacher's appearance that distinguished him, he didn't walk or talk like other family teachers. He befriended people that most teachers would never speak to. He ate and drank with some of the most disreputable people of the land--yet he never became like them. In fact, just the opposite happened: He changed them! He touched the hearts of criminals, the bodies of lepers, and the minds of people possessed with demons. He touched them and made them whole. Yet he carried this power with inexpressible gentleness. Even as spiritual leaders of the family reeled in envy and disbelief, he picked up and held the little children who flocked to him.
With eyes of compassion, the teacher talked about a great feast that was being prepared for those who would accept the king's invitation. He also talked about a day of regret and unending loss for those who ignored or disregarded the king's offer. The teacher said there would be a judgment with loss and regret that would never end for those who refused the king.
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In the hours leading up to an important family holiday, the unexpected happened. As the family prepared for their annual "sacrifice of the lamb" to remember their deliverance from the prince of the south, religious leaders turned against the teacher. Although these leaders didn't deny his ability to heal bodies or change hearts, they accused him of being disruptive and energized by the power of the rebel. They accused him of trying to build a kingdom of public enemies, social misfits, and obvious examples of moral ruin.
The religious leaders of the family took their complaint to government officials. Within hours they had pressured an unconvinced judge to treat the teacher as a threat to the common good. Not wanting to anger these religious leaders, the governor had the teacher whipped and turned over to executioners. Along with two criminals, the teacher was nailed to a tree and then lifted up as a public example of what happens to those who challenge the manners and rules of society. As his mother and friends cried, soldiers swaggered. Religious leaders huddled with a sense of relief. Strangers who walked nearby on a public road stared. A few hours later, his body was buried quickly in a borrowed tomb before their holiday celebrations began.
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The teacher's followers couldn't make sense of what had happened. One minute they were listening to the wisest, most loving man they had ever seen. The next minute he was subjected to an unfair trial, declared unfit to live, and sentenced to die. Only hours before, he had confounded his critics with the most profound words they had ever heard. Now he was gone. Like lightning streaking across the sky, the teacher's life and vision for the future seemed to end as quickly as it began.
Then the unexpected happened again. After 3 days of living in the shadows, the teacher's friends had a change of attitude and mood. First a group of women breathlessly reported that the tomb where the teacher had been buried was empty. Then others began to claim that they had seen him alive. Whole groups of men and women announced that they too had seen him.
Together the witnesses gave reason to believe that the most important event since creation had just happened. In time, many of them showed that they were willing to die for their story. They didn't die for their belief in an idea, but for something they would have known was a lie--if it weren't true. They died for their claim that they had seen the teacher alive after his death and burial in a borrowed, officially sealed, guarded grave.
During one of his appearances, the friends of the teacher asked him when the great king was going to establish his long-awaited kingdom of peace on earth. The teacher told them it was not for them to know when this would happen. Instead, he said to tell their neighbors what they had seen and heard, and to continue to do so for as long as they could.
Then, in the presence of his friends, the teacher provided another lasting memory. As they stood talking with him, he defied gravity and rose weightlessly from the ground until concealed by the clouds.
As the friends stood speechless, staring into the sky, two messengers from another world appeared to them saying, "In the same way you have seen him go, he will return." Later, the friends remembered that the teacher himself had told them that he would return for them at a time they did not expect.
As the friends talked about what they had seen, they realized that they had witnessed the most profound event anyone would ever see. They had witnessed a sacrifice that gave full meaning to the countless sacrifices the king had taught his family to offer. This time, the sacrifice was not just a lamb. This time, the friends had seen the king surrender himself to the executioner's hand. In a sacrifice that gave meaning to all other sacrifices, the king personally and voluntarily took the punishment deserved by his own rebel citizens.
Three days later, the friends had seen the king prove the value of his sacrifice by rising from the dead to offer pardon and unending possibilities to all who would believe and trust in him. He returned alive and well to give his followers the most wonderful news the earth would ever hear: "Believe that the king has paid the price of your misused freedom. Believe he has done for you what you could not do for yourselves, and be spared the unending consequences of your own wrongs."
His friends began to travel the earth spreading the good news of what the king had done for everyone and what he still wanted to do for those who would trust him.
Part of their message was that as certainly as the king had come the first time, he would come again to fulfill his vision for a free world where people would live forever without boredom or regret. Now his friends began to live not only for the hope of a new world, but for the anticipation of living in the presence of the one who had saved their lives and once again opened the door to endless possibilities and happiness.
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After an absence of several years, the king paid a return visit to one of his friends. In this meeting the king gave personal words of greeting and instruction that he wanted passed along to several different groups of citizens. These messages were full of insight, encouragement, and warning.
Then after these personal words, the king gave his friend some details about his plans for the future. He confirmed that before the citizens of the earth could experience the quality of life and relationships they were all looking for, there were some last things that would have to happen first.
Then the end would begin. According to the king, this endtime process would be similar to, but much more extensive than, what happened when the king broke the grip of the prince of the south. He said the earth will convulse with plagues and storms and wars that will become progressively worse until the last battle is fought.
The king also made it clear that after he removes the rebel from the earth, he will restore a believing remnant of the same family nation that he rescued from the prince of the south. Once again he will use this chosen family, the soil of their homeland, and the temple of its capital city, as a base from which to establish his vision for the world.
For 1,000 years the king will restore the earth to its original condition. The wolf, the lamb, the lion, and the goat will be friends again. Machines of war will be recycled into farming equipment. The king will himself have a throne in his capital city. All the citizens of the earth will finally be subject to his direct rule.
No one knows exactly what this future will be like. In many ways the king's future, like his past, is shrouded in great mystery.
What we do know is that the king himself will be living with his people. We know that his ideas have always been progressive. We have every reason to believe that the future, like the past, will be marked by a kind of discovery, industry, and even competition that is not scarred and twisted by self-interest and hostility.
We also know that before this future rolls out into a quality of life far greater than we ever imagined, the king will meet individually with all of his people. All people will be held accountable for what they have done with the opportunities the king has given them.
This coming day of reckoning is one reason this story must continue to be told. This is our story. It reminds us who we are, where we've come from, and where we are going. It helps us to see the choices that are ours as we approach the next fork in the path. Which way will we go?