Over the years, the most popular character in my novel Deadline has been a boy with Down syndrome named Little Finn. He also appears in my novel Dominion. In Deadline, I also portray another child with Down syndrome teaching people in Heaven, with a startling depth of insight. (And certainly, those with disabilities can teach us many things in this present life, too.) Here’s that scene from the novel, when the character Finney encounters this remarkable young teacher:
The angel Zyor led Finney into a great hall that opened into an expansive meadow. It was disorienting, because the hall, gigantic as it had appeared on the outside, was only a fraction the size of the meadow within. And before he had entered, behind the hall he’d seen a landscape much different than what he saw now. Like many of Heaven’s doors, it seemed to lead to a world of its own, a world within a world.
Thousands were gathering here, looking toward someone who was speaking. Whenever he paused in his speech, as if for a translation, little discussions broke out everywhere. Those of Michael’s race answered the questions of Heaven’s students, Finney among them. Finney noticed many in the crowd were Heaven’s young children, like himself. Once explanations were made, attention went back to the one up front like iron filings drawn to a magnet, and he resumed speaking as if there had been no interruption.
There was no rudeness to these midcourse discussions. On the contrary, it was the intense interest in every word of the speaker that prompted them. Finney remembered the two distinctly different kinds of whispers in school classes. One kind was born of boredom and disinterest, where students sought escape from what the instructor was saying. But the other was born of profound interest, which compelled a student to comment to his fellow students or to ask clarifying questions.
Here no one asked the dutiful question, “Will this be on the quiz?” Everyone listened because he wanted to learn. What flowed from the speaker was fresh water to a thirsty mind. Finney was again exhilarated by his vastly improved ability to retain, yet challenged that every new thing in this lecture seemed eminently significant and worthy of retaining.
Finney was engrossed in the speaker’s words, which seemed a direct extension of his life. This one had the wisdom of a thousand mentors. Finney was inexplicably drawn to him and kept asking himself who he was. His face seemed almost a hybrid of child’s face and angel’s face. Why was this face so familiar? Finney gasped.
He knew this face! It was the face of Little Finn, his son! But Finn was still back on earth. And yet...
Of course, Finney thought. It was his face, the pure delighted face of what was called on earth the child with Down syndrome. This professor around whom gathered the students of Heaven, some of them once professors on earth, was a child with Down's, rather a man with the enduring qualities of a child. How had he obtained such wisdom and eloquence? Was it from his long residence here in Elyon’s world? From an intimate acquaintance with Elyon that preceded his entrance to this world? Finney theorized he might even be part of a unique order of being, a special strain of Adam’s race. Not a genetic accident, inferior to the norm, but one challenged in some conventional senses yet in profound and invisible ways superior to the norm.
He listened as the man, this eternally young man, spoke. Even the texture of his voice reminded him of Little Finn, and Finney marveled at his words:
“When our Lord Christ walked in the dark world, we are told ‘People were also bringing babies to Jesus to have him touch them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’
“Again, Christ said, ‘I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.’
“On another occasion, we are told, ‘He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For he who is least among you all—he is the greatest.’
“To those who wanted to silence the praise of children, Jesus responded, ‘Have you never read, “From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise”?’ Again, Jesus said, ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.’”
The young man surveyed the audience and seemed to achieve the impossible by establishing eye contact with all the thousands at once.
“I who stand before you today, and all those of my kind, are testimonies to the truth written in still another place: ‘But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.’”
Finney found himself wondering if Little Finn would someday occupy this role of teacher in the new world, and if he would have the privilege of sitting at his son’s feet. The thought caused his spine to tingle, and even as he wondered it, he knew the answer would be yes. Finney listened in rapt attention as the young man moved on to develop the favorite theme of Heaven:
“Elyon’s Son is Alpha and Omega, beginning and end. As he was at the beginning, so he is now, and at what men call the end, so he will yet be. He sees that coming end as one more beginning, the beginning of a new world. It will be built on the foundation of his character, defined by the cornerstone of his grace. It has been conceived by the master Architect, drawn out with the meticulous pen of the great Engineer, and will be constructed with the skilled hands of the Builder. The hands, pure and strong, the hands scarred for eternity, the hands of the Carpenter.”
The child’s voice became more powerful with every sentence, his angelic face racked with synchronous joy and pain, the latter at the reference to the scarred hands.
“The Carpenter of Nazareth, building the house of faith, joining with the mortar of heaven apostles and prophets, fishermen and seamstresses, farmers and shepherds, bricklayers and teachers, businessmen, homemakers, and nurses.”
Finney felt he was beholding the beauty of a great river, watching the current and its white caps highlighting rocks and fallen trees buried beneath. But now there was a change, for he had fallen in the river, was caught up in the current, surrounded by the rushing sounds of moving water, dragging him pell-mell down the rapids. Thrown into the currents of a divine and awful momentum, he felt one part of what he once knew as consuming fear—the exhilaration of being lost in something far greater than himself, the feeling at the top of the roller coaster, about to fall into the abyss. Yet he did not feel the other part of consuming fear, the loathing of the horrors of destruction. Only after adjusting to the flow of the current, Finney could again evaluate what he was not simply watching, but was now a full-fledged participant in.
This child had been “handicapped” in the other world. Handicapped and unable to deal with life in conventional ways. He could never make much money, never hope to be Time magazine’s Man of the Year. The majority, on knowing what he was, would elect to take his life before he was born, or let him die of neglect afterwards. But here in Elyon’s realm his value was so obvious it showed such thoughts to be unspeakably evil, unthinkable to the sane mind.
On earth he would not qualify for a seat on the orchestra. But here and now, he was the conductor, surrounded by rapt and attentive musicians, ready to do his bidding. Finney could see the coat and tails, the flying hands and baton. He felt the line between audience and orchestra blur until there was no audience now, only orchestra, conductor, music. Melodies and harmonies. And yet, there was an audience. An audience so great and all-encompassing that Finney had been no more aware of it a moment before than a fish is aware of water. But the conductor was intensely aware of the audience and bent upon finding approval in its eyes.
Feverishly, Finney played his instrument. What it was he could not say, though it seemed as much like him as his ear-to-ear smile. He could hear it now, its sounds blending into the whole. One member would solo, and then another, and then the power of the whole dominated again. The attention of the orchestra was always on the piece, at once carefully composed and directed with discipline, yet wonderfully free and spontaneous. He sensed this piece of music had been played countless thousands or millions of times, yet never like this, and therefore never before. Finney soloed now, the orchestra creating a splendid and dazzling background to the focused and inspired rendition of his singular part.
There was an audience. It was the Audience of One. And the sense of his approval swept through the orchestra and its delighted childlike conductor in a profound sense of joy and completion. The orchestra played on. The Master was pleased. And for the moment, and for ever, that was all that mattered.