Recent Posts

  • It Got Very Quiet up in the Mountains
  • Can We Trust Him?
  • You Give Them Something to Eat
  • Coming of Age
  • Lost and Found, Found and Lost

It Got Very Quiet up in the Mountains

It got very quiet up in the mountains.

He was trying to pray, but it wasn’t easy. He’d climbed for hours into the mountains. He didn’t really believe that climbing a mountain would bring him closer to God. At least not consciously. But he wanted to get through. He had a complaint. God needed to hear him and he needed to know God had heard him.

He sat down on a rock. He didn’t know how high up he was. He thought maybe the air was thinner. Had he climbed high enough to notice such a thing? He didn’t know.

He looked up at the sky and started his complaint. He’d worked it out in his mind. It was a complaint, but a very polite one.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of people, places, and events to the real world is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2014
Henry E. Neufeld

“Oh Lord, Creator of the Universe, Bringer of all good things, I do thank You for all Your many blessings. I believe Your Word, I trust You.”

“Who are you talking to?” said a voice. It might have been the wind. It might have been in his head. But it was real enough that he looked around. Must be my imagination, he thought.

“I believe that You reward those who do Your will, and punish those who do evil.”

“No you don’t,” said the voice. “And I still wonder who you’re talking to. I hear all those capital letters, ‘You’ and ‘Your’.”

How can one hear capital letters? he thought.

“It’s the way you say them. I can tell you’d capitalize them if you wrote them. You’d see it as a sign of respect. But I notice you didn’t respond to my most important comment.”

He was startled that he got an answer when he just thought. “But I do believe God rewards good and punishes evil!”

“It’s interesting that you speak so courteously, and yet you’re not afraid to lie to me.”

“I’m not lying!” He hesitated. “Are you claiming to be God?”

“Who’s claiming anything? Do you see anyone around here other than yourself? You left the sane people behind several miles back!”

He looked around. Indeed, he saw nobody but himself. Even the trees were sparse and stunted. He must have walked further than he had planned. “But you said I was lying!” His voice hardened with anger.

“Aha! Honest words! Honest emotion! I said you were lying because you were. You do not believe that I reward good and punish evil. In fact, that’s why you’re up in this God-forsaken (you should pardon the expression, but you were thinking it!) place. You think you have been treated unfairly.”

He forgot to argue about who the voice was. “But I have been treated unfairly!” he exclaimed. “All my life I have done what was right. I have submitted to the authority of your ministers. I have lived a good life. I have caused no trouble. Yet I have next to nothing. No reward. I’ve been a good man. I should be rewarded!”

“Well, that’s more honest. Not actually honest, but better. It might seem that with a wife, four children, a dozen grandchildren, a successful business, and the acceptance of your neighbors you would be satisfied.”

“How do you know all those things?”

“I’m just a voice in your head, after all.”

“I didn’t say that!”

“You were thinking it.”

There was a pause. He wasn’t going to win that one. He had been thinking it was just a voice in his head. “And my neighbors don’t just accept me. They respect me.”

“No, actually they don’t. I would say you’re lying, but in this case you’ve lied to yourself so often that you think you’re telling the truth. Your neighbors just think you’re safe. That you won’t do anything unexpected. That you won’t rock the boat.”

“Well, doesn’t that make me a good neighbor?”

“Sometimes the boat needs rocking. Sometimes it needs to be turned over.”

“That sounds dangerous.”

“Actually living is dangerous.”

He was thinking this conversation was dangerous, and he didn’t like dangerous things. He had a habit with conversations like this. He’d direct them to what he called “the subject at hand,” which was always something safe. “In any case,” he said out loud, “I came here to pray and I was trying to pray.”

“What do you think you’re doing?”

“Holding a conversation with a voice,” he said testily, then went on. “But Lord, you rule the heavens, and I need you to look at my enemy, my nemesis, Jason. He’s a troublemaker, yet he has a major following. He has a good job and lots of money, and people follow him. In fact, he’s trying to change my church …”

“My church,” said the voice.

“Yes, my church.”

“No,” said the voice. “It’s My church. Hear the capital letter in my voice. My church. Mine. All Mine! Not yours.” Somehow the voice didn’t sound petulant saying it. Just calm and factual.

“I’m trying to pray here,” he said.

“And I’m trying to answer a prayer,” said the voice. “Like I said, look around. Who’s making claims?”

“Are you God?” There was a pause. “Speaking to me?”

“What do you think?”

“I think I’m crazy.”

“You could go talk to a counselor. Get the voice suppressed or removed.”

“What? Go to a counselor and say, ‘A voice told me to come to you so I wouldn’t hear it any more?’ Wouldn’t that be crazier than average?”

“You’re the guy who’s climbed a mountain for hours and brought himself close to a heart attack—you ought to exercise more—in order to get closer to God. And you don’t even really believe in God.”

“What? I’m a believer. I’ve believed all my life!”

“In God?”

“Of course, in God.”

“And what have I done, according to you, up to now.”

There was silence for several minutes.

“Can’t really think of anything, can you?”

“Well, you’re the creator of the universe, right?”

“I am. Do you really believe it? Or is it just a default that you know you’re supposed to believe.”

“I never really thought about it. The pastor preached it, I believed it.”

“The pastor preached it, you ignored it.”

“What was I supposed to do about it?”

“What about when the creation care folks came to the church. What did you do?”

“Are you on the side of the creation care people?”

“I’m not really on anybody’s side. I ask people to be on mine. Answer the question! What did you do?”

“I proposed the compromise vote by which the church agreed to pass a resolution saying that we should take care of God’s world.”

“But your resolution didn’t involve doing anything, right?”

“Well, no. That was the point. Anything we did would cause a fight in the church. So I made peace. ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’, right?”

“‘I came not to bring peace, but a sword’.”

“You wanted a church fight?”

“I’m asking the questions. Most of them, at least. So what about when your church voted on the new building project? What did you do then?”

“I suggested that we wait until we had the funds.”

“And did the funds ever come in?”

“No.”

“So you killed that one too.”

“Did you want the church to add on a building?”

“No, not particularly. I can answer that one. But you didn’t pay any attention. Now Jason. He led the fight for the extension.”

“Yes, and people loved him for it. They wanted that building and he was their leader.”

“People respected him, loved him.”

“Yes! That’s the problem, Lord. I believe in you. I do good things. Yet Jason gets the rewards.”

“What do you believe about me? What good things have you done?”

There was another pause. He was trying to think of what to say. Obviously, keeping the peace in the church didn’t work.

“What you have,” said the voice, “is the natural result of the way you lived your life.”

“Isn’t it your blessing or curse?”

“Only in the sense that I created everything, and quite often, you reap what you sow.”

“But what about Job? Did he reap what he sowed?”

“No. Sometimes it doesn’t work that way. Sometimes you reap what others sow. Sometimes you don’t know what’s going on in the background. But you’re not Job. You’re not suffering.”

“Yes I am! Just look at what you’re doing for that Jason character, and he’s  even been in prison before. He gets the respect, the money, the easy life, and I don’t. He’s a sinner, a troublemaker, and you keep blessing him!”

“So your problem is not what I do for you, it’s that you think I’m doing better things for someone else?”

“Yes! No! I mean I’ve been a better person than Jason, and he gets the better blessings.”

“So, let’s say that Jason falls on hard times, would that make you happy?”

There was another pause.

“You don’t want to say it, but I can hear it in your mind. You’d deny it, but you’d gloat if Jason fell on hard times.”

“But he’s a troublemaker.”

“Jason is a man of action. He’s often wrong, but never quiet, never apathetic.”

Another pause. “And me?” He almost said “Lord” after that.

“You? You’re boring. You avoid trouble even when trouble is needed. Then you complain about the people who are making a difference.”

“So you think Jason is right more often than I am.”

“Quite the contrary. You’re often right but never active.”

“So right and wrong doesn’t matter?”

“Oh, it matters. But what matters first is caring and acting. If you’re right but inactive it’s not much good. Oh, and people don’t always get what they deserve. Remember that. It’s just that in your case, you’ve pretty much gotten what you deserve, just proving that humans will complain about fairness too.”

“So I really did hear from God up on this mountain?”

“You don’t need to believe that,” said the voice. “Maybe you just got too high up and the air is thin. Why don’t you hike down a ways. But slowly. Your heart isn’t really up to all this.”

It got very quite up in the mountains.

Can We Trust Him?

The old woodsman held out his hand. The village chief looked at it, looked at the river. Looked at his wife, his children, and the villagers behind him.

It was raining. It had been raining for days. The waters were rising. Not even the oldest villager could remember when the river had been this high. And it was dark. He couldn’t see the other shore. In fact, he could barely see the woodman himself. If he let himself, he could imagine that arm attached to nothing as the man himself faded.

On the other hand, the village was on a small island in the river.  Its people lived off the river. The island was rocky. Perhaps if they went to the highest rock in the center, they would be able to stay above the water level as the river continued to rise. It had worked in previous floods.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to people, places, or events in the real world is strictly coincidental. Well, except for the scripture on which it is based!
Copyright © 2014
Henry E. Neufeld

And who was this woodsman anyhow? They all had seen him. They knew of him. He lived out with the animals in the woods. He had no family. Nobody knew who his parents were. He was dirty and rough. The villagers weren’t rich, but they were respectable. The river provided a good living fishing for them. They sold the fish downstream. They were businessmen. Respectable. Anchored. How could they trust this nobody?

And that rope the woodsman was standing on. The one he held. Were they well attached? It was all well and good for an unattached woodsman. If he went into the river, there’d be nobody to mourn. So what did it matter? Could he be trusted?

The chief wanted to send someone else, to claim that, like the captain of a ship, he should be the  last off the island. On the other hand, he wanted to send his children first, so that they’d have the best chance of surviving. He wasn’t sure which of these thoughts was the most noble, and which the result of cowardice. Should he go first to show the way? Should he stay last so that others had the best chance?

He looked at the woodsman with a question in his eyes, with all these questions together. But the woodsman only thrust out his arm. He’d already told the chief about the logjam up the river. It could break at any time. When it did, everything would be swept from the island. Anyone on his rope bridge at that point would be swept away as well.

But the chief wondered if he could trust this nobody. Would it really happen? Would safety not be found in the same place it always had?

The woodsman thrust his arm toward the chief again.


What would you do? (Be honest with yourself!)

(Though the details are somewhat distant from it, this story was suggested to me by the Lectionary reading, Proper 14A, Matthew 14:22-33. You can ask yourself some of these questions, and others,  by placing yourself in that story as well.)

You Give Them Something to Eat

The first pastor was annoyed and impatient during Miriam’s visit. He had a large and active church, and had thought he was making an appointment to talk to a member about some church problem. When she asked for the appointment, Miriam had said, “It’s about a problem and what the church can do about it.” The secretary had written “church problem” in the little text field on her computer marked “Reason for Appointment” and that was that.

“I was reading in my Bible,” said Miriam, “and I came to a story. It says here that Jesus fed 5,000 people.”

“It’s good to read your Bible,” said the pastor in a neutral tone of voice. He claimed to want people to study their Bibles. In fact, he thought the ones that did it on their own, apart from church curriculum, came up with too many weird ideas. The girl in front of him (what had possessed the secretary to give him an appointment with a teenager?) looked like weird ideas, probably wild ones, were very likely. She had several extra piercings in her ears, one in her lip, and a tattoo on her shoulder that he couldn’t identify, but which gave him the feeling that it was unchristian. She was considered pretty conservative by her crowd at school, but the pastor was unacquainted with her crowd.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of the characters, places, events, or stereotypes to the real world is purely coincidental. (Well, perhaps the stereotypes are real. I’ve met some of them.)
Copyright &copy 2014
Henry E. Neufeld

“Yes,” said Maria. “It’s been helping me in my study of English literature, but that’s not what I’m here about.”

The pastor was a little annoyed. Literature? Then why’s she seeing me? he thought. But he pasted a questioning look on his face.

Encouraged by this, Miriam continued. “But in the middle of the story, Jesus tells the disciples to give the people something to eat. Now either he was screwing with their heads, or he thought they should have been able to do something about it, if they just wanted to badly enough. Maybe he thought they should have planned ahead to bring enough food. I don’t know.

“But he says it, ‘You give them something to eat’.”

“Jesus could perform a miracle and feed all those people. We can’t. It would take resources.”

“Yes,” said Miriam. “I can see that. You think Jesus was screwing with their heads.” The pastor couldn’t control the look of distaste that crossed his face. Using the phrase “screwing with their heads” in connection with Jesus just didn’t sound properly respectful. Miriam continued, “I don’t think Jesus was screwing with their heads. I think he wanted them to think about things like that. I think he wanted them to be ready to feed people.”

“You’re not a member of our church, are you?”

Miriam paused and looked puzzled at this apparent non sequitur. (She knew what a non sequitur was. She’d looked it up in English class.) “No,” she said. “I’m not.”

“Where do you go to church?”

“I don’t. My parents aren’t church people.”

“Well, perhaps you should. Then we could teach you how to understand these difficult passages of scripture. Then you could take these questions to your pastor.” He emphasized the pronoun slightly. On the one hand, he wanted to bring in new members. On the other, he thought this one was a troublemaker, and perhaps someone else could be her pastor. He wasn’t sure how old she was. He guessed 16 or so.

“I don’t see what’s so difficult about it. It seems that Jesus doesn’t like people going hungry. It seems like he told his disciples to feed them. When they didn’t, he made it happen. I understand it’s just a story, but stories have meaning too.”

“Well, you can’t take these stories too literally.”

“I’m not taking it literally. I don’t believe that Jesus actually miraculously fed 5,000 people. I don’t believe in that sort of miracle. I believe in the story. ‘You give them something to eat.’ I thought you would too.”

“I would really like to have a chance to teach you some more about the Bible,” lied the pastor. In fact, he really hoped someone else would deal with this girl. “For example, Jesus really did feed 5,000 people. It happened! But right now I don’t have the time. I have another appointment coming up.”

Miriam knew he was lying. She knew how to make appointments and had specifically asked for half an hour. “So,” she said, “you do believe in the miracle, but not in the story.” She jumped up and was gone in a moment.

The second pastor was a known activist. She thought he was more likely to be sympathetic. She’d had some idea that people might not like the fact that she didn’t believe the miracles. Didn’t, and couldn’t. She just couldn’t make herself accept the supernatural. But she was surprised that the first pastor didn’t believe the rest!

“It’s a complex issue,” said the pastor. He was not put off by her clothing or manner. He did, in fact, associate with people her age. Like her crowd at school, he thought she was a bit conservative.

“What’s complex about it? ‘You give them something to eat.’”

“Well, that’s the story, that’s the myth. It drives us. But when we are driven toward the right goal by the story, we discover that there is much more to it than that.”

“So Jesus was a bit simple minded? I mean in the story. You know I don’t believe in the miracle.”

“Simple minded? No! He was pointing the way.”

“But a way that doesn’t really work, right?”

“No, it can work, but it’s more complex. You wouldn’t understand these things yet. You’re young and idealistic. That’s good! Enjoy it while you can! But when you start working on these problems in more detail you’ll find it’s much more difficult than just saying ‘give them something to eat’. There are structural issues, the way that the entire system is biased in favor of the rich over the poor, the way food is produced and distributed. One person or one church cannot solve the problem. We need society-wide, even worldwide solutions for problems like this.” He could remember when he had felt much like the girl did, but thousands of disappointments along the way had polished off the rough edges. He much preferred “polished off the rough edges” to “made him cynical.”

“I see. The bottom line still seems to be that the story doesn’t work.”

After that the conversation dwindled, though they parted more amicably than she had with the first pastor.

The third pastor didn’t like the idea of feeding the hungry that much. Of course he gave it lip service. His congregation would provide food for the needy at Christmas. They had lunches to give out from time to time to homeless people, but the general idea of feeding the hungry, especially if one didn’t limit it properly, didn’t sound right. Besides, his task was to spread the gospel.

“You have to understand that this is a metaphor,” he told the girl.

“You mean you don’t believe it either,” she replied. He was surprised at her look of disappointment, and by the suggestion that she had asked others.

“Of course I believe it! Jesus performed miracles. Never doubt that!”

“Actually, I don’t believe in the miracle. I believe in the story. ‘You give them something to eat.’ That’s where it leads me every time I read it.”

“Well, yes, but the miracle is required to fulfil that command. How could the disciples have fed all those people?”

“So you also believe Jesus was screwing with their heads.”

“Jesus did not mess with people’s heads!” declared the pastor. He wasn’t going to use the word “screw” in connection with Jesus. Miriam just sat there with raised eyebrows.

“As I said, it’s a metaphor. Even the miracle is a metaphor. It really happened, but it’s pointing to something else. That bread represents God’s word that we give to the people. ‘You give them something to eat’ means that we’re supposed to give people the word of the gospel, the good news that Jesus died to save them from hell.”

Miriam looked at him for a few moments. “I really think you ought to read your Bible more,” she said. “I think you’d find out that Jesus screwed with lots of people’s heads!”

And she was up and out the door, waving and saying a friendly sound “bye!” as she stepped out the door.

The pastor shook his head. “Young people today!” he said to the empty room.

The fourth pastor called Miriam the whore of Babylon, but he didn’t count.

The fifth, sixth, and seventh wanted her to invite her parents to church. If she could only get her parents to attend, they would be glad to get her in touch with the right committee — well, the sixth pastor called it a team — who would be happy to work with her on a mission project, one suitable for the youth, of course.

The eighth pastor referred her to the youth director who invited her to youth sports night. “You could make some friends, and then maybe you could think of a project together. We might even be able to deliver lunches to some shut-ins.”

Miriam thought delivering lunches to shut-ins sounded like an excellent idea, but couldn’t figure out why she had to go to sports night and make more friends before she did it. She had lots of friends.

And that was her moment of epiphany. She had lots of friends. She made them easily. She wasn’t an obvious social leader, but lots of people listened to her, because they thought she often had good ideas. She knew how to have fun without getting into trouble. Not that she didn’t cross the line, but she seemed to know how to do it without getting caught or, if caught, getting into too much trouble.

So the next day as lunch hour was about over, she jumped up on a table at school and yelled, “Listen up, everyone!”

This started a chain of events with the staff, one of whom decided not to try to deal with this herself, and so called in the assistant principal.

Silence descended on the lunch room, which was, in itself, a miracle. This occurred to Miriam and she grinned before she started to speak.

“I’ve been reading my Bible, because it relates to literature class.”

Oh no, thought the one teacher in the room. She’s become a religious nut and she’s going to preach, and we’re all going to get into trouble.

“I came to this story about Jesus feeding 5,000 people. Now I know some of you believe and some of you don’t. As for me, I don’t really, not in the miracle. But the story is good. In the story Jesus cares about those people and he tells his disciples — that’s followers — ‘you give them something to eat.’ Now I’ve been talking to pastors around town, and it seems that they think this is all crap as well. The story, I mean. They believe in the miracle, but it’s just this thing that happened. I believe in the story.”

The assistant principal walked into the room. He was trying to decide what to do, but the nature of the speech shocked him.

“Now some people think it’s too hard. We can’t feed people. All the people. Everyone who needs it. But look around. We’re going to throw enough food away to feed a whole other school. This is a good neighborhood. Most of our parents have money. Those churches I visited, they have big buildings, lots of resources.

“But none of them believe. They don’t believe this can be done. Well, I believe it can. Just for our town. Maybe even for this county. We could have a whole county where nobody went hungry. And even if these other people are right and we can’t take care of everyone, we can make sure it’s a lot less. Less hungry people, I mean.

“Is anyone with me?”

The assistant principal just kept watching. On the one hand it was his duty to keep students from disrupting the school. Miriam was definitely out of line. Based on what he had heard and what the teacher had whispered to him, he wasn’t sure whether he was going to be accused of attacking religion or promoting it. On the other hand, he had been called out of a session with a couple of students who didn’t care about anything. Wasn’t this something good?

“My dad owns the grocery store down on 10th Avenue,” said one student.

“My mom works for …”

“My grandfather was talking just the other day about how hard it was to find a place where he could be sure his money would be spent well if he gave it …”

One of Miriam’s friends started taking notes.

The assistant principal wasn’t sure if he was witnessing a miracle, getting himself and the whole school into incredible trouble, or letting his authority seep through the cracks, never to return.

Suddenly Miriam looked at the clock. “Lunch hour’s over,” she said with another brilliant smile. Then she looked at the assistant principal. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll go to your office peacefully!”

You give them something to eat. — Matthew 14:16 (from Lectionary Proper 13A, Matthew 14:13-21)

Coming of Age

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of the characters, places, or events to anything in the real world is strictly coincidental.
Copyright © 2014
Henry E. Neufeld

“We can’t let Sam turn 16 without the proper ceremony,” said Elsa. “A young man’s 16th birthday is a very important event. It must be done right.”

“We can’t afford much,” said Zeb.

“There are certain things that must be done, no matter what the cost!”

That silenced Zeb. “Things that must be done” were beyond argument. So he started to work on the list.

And the day of a young man’s 16th birthday was very important in their town. It was a coming of age. People would judge the young man by the quality of the ceremony. If the day passed unnoticed, so would the young man. Or at least that’s what Elsa thought. No, “thought” was not a strong enough word. Elsa knew this. It was engraved in her mind and her heart. She felt it in her bones. She must put on the proper ceremony for Sam. Anything else was unthinkable.

So the tension in the household grew. Elsa was unable to conceive that Zeb might consider something other than the full ceremony she planned for her first born son’s 16th birthday. Zeb simply looked at the diminishing size of his purse and wondered how they were to pay for food for the rest of the year. His reserves were gone. The slightest reverse in his business and he’d be gone. He tried to tell Elsa that there was no more money.

She took the money he had provided for food for the coming month and threw it at him. “Even if we don’t eat for the rest of the year, my son will have a proper ceremony for coming of age.”

The husband and wife looked at one another across their small living room, neither capable of understanding what the other was saying.

Into this brittle silence walked Sam.

He looked from one parent to the other. He saw that something was wrong, but he wasn’t sure what it was. He had paid little attention to the coming of age party. Yes, it was an important step, but he hadn’t thought about costs. He had been busy …

“Mom, Dad,” he said, “I’m leaving tonight. I have an apprenticeship with a blacksmith who lives across the mountains.”

… coming of age.

Lost and Found, Found and Lost

When he turned 40, Kenneth began to feel that something was missing in his life. Oh, he wasn’t a lost soul. He didn’t feel a need to find himself, whatever that might mean. He just felt that there was some thing, or perhaps some person, which (or who) would make his life more complete. Something was missing and he needed to find it.

It took him months to come to what was, for others, the obvious conclusion. He needed to find his birth father. Now Kenneth had a good life. His parents were loving. He had not lacked for anything. He wasn’t enormously rich, but he was well off, and didn’t feel any financial needs. He was married, and his wife and children constituted, as far as he could tell, the perfect family. Yes, there were conflicts. There was drama. But everything always worked out in the end, and he thought that was fine.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance between characters and events in it and real life and purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2014,
Henry E. Neufeld

His parents — he didn’t think of his dad as a stepdad, though he was — were involved in his life, but not too involved. They seemed to be careful to behave in just the right way for parents of an adult son with his own business and his own family. Yet when he mentioned searching for his birth father they seemed stressed, even though they didn’t tell him not to do it. So he decided to make the search quietly.

The story he had known all his life was that his father abandoned him as an infant and had never been heard from again. His stepdad had stepped in, as his title implied, and had provided for Kenneth all his life.

The search itself took months. You may think that all the fun in this story would happen during the search. But it was really quite uneventful. Private investigators interviewed people and found documents. Nobody tried to kill them. Nobody threatened anybody. His parents didn’t come and tell him not to look.

In the end, however, the search ended with a birth record in a small hospital and the name of a man who was now dead. There was no information even on where that man might be buried.

Kenneth still felt that something was missing. And now he was sure it was his birth father. Why couldn’t he even find a grave marker?

*****

A continent away in the penthouse suite of a luxury hotel, Gary looked at another report. (He hadn’t been called by his first name for years. He was Mr. Adamson to everyone. He was a powerful man.) He too had been searching, and since he was very, very rich he had more resources at his command than Kenneth. For nearly 40 years he had wondered where his son was. If his wife had lived, the search would have been a priority, but the police had searched diligently at the time, and he hadn’t seen any reason to try some more. Doubtless little Vincent had been killed years ago. His wife had also died a couple of years after their son went missing.

For weeks Gary had known where his missing son was. But when he’d looked at that perfect life, he had wondered whether he had a right to change it. His wife would have had no doubt, he knew. They’d be on the private jet that was waiting at the airport as fast as they could pack an overnight bag and they’d be talking to that son. But he wasn’t sure.

But this report changed things. His son was looking for him. His son wanted to know who he was.

He pressed an intercom button. “Get the jet ready …”

*****

And now the question: Who was lost, and who was found?

(This story was written while thinking about Lectionary Proper 12A, which will be discussed in the Bible Study my wife Jody and I host on July 21, 2014 at 7 pm.)

The Former Youth Group

“Your youth group is a miserable shadow of the one we had when Fred Martenson was our youth pastor!”

The words rang in David’s ears as he stood on the sidewalk outside the church’s administrative building. His next move was to walk to his car, get in, and go home. That seemed like a good idea, but he seemed frozen. The board of elders had just gotten done evaluating his first three months as the church’s youth pastor, and it had not gone well. He had entered filled with optimism. Attendance was up. His youth were getting more involved in the church. There was much left to be done, but he was pleased with the progress thus far. He even had a new plan, initiated by one of the youth, involving the young people visiting shut-in church members, encouraging them, and helping them. All in all, he felt he had done well in just three months in his new position.

But the board felt otherwise. He had spent nearly two hours hearing comparisons of his tenure thus far to the accomplishments of this former youth pastor, Fred Martenson, who had apparently been a paragon of all pastoral virtues, and had only left when the powers-that-be had required his services in a large church that was near collapse. Only the talents of their youth pastor would do to save the large church. So they had reluctantly let their treasure go.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of persons, places, or events to anything in the real world is strictly coincidental. This story was written as a comment on the lectionary, Pentecost + 25, Cycle C. Copyright © 2013, Henry E. Neufeld.

David had never heard of Fred Martenson. He had replaced someone by another name, one he couldn’t remember at the moment and whose name nobody seemed to mention, and that only after a year’s vacancy. He’d heard nothing about this Fred from his young people, though he thought he’d heard the name from one of the older members a couple of times. It really hadn’t stuck with him.

But apparently the man was some kind of wizard at youth ministry, or apparently at pastoral ministry in general, and he was expected to live up to his accomplishments, whatever those might be.

His reverie was interrupted.

“That bad?” said Roger Geoffries.

David didn’t answer for a few moments. He was too surprised. He had not been certain Roger Geoffries could talk. The man was at the church regularly. He cleaned. He mowed the grass. He tended to flower beds. He fixed things that nobody else could fix. But when Roger talked … well, nobody knew. Roger never talked.

“How did you know?” asked David.

Roger Geoffries shrugged. He seem to indicate that it was obvious.

“Yes, it was bad,” said David.

“Usually is.”

“Why?”

“The ghost of Fred.” Was that just a twitch of a grin on Roger’s face?

“Ghost?” asked David.

Roger nodded. “Can’t catch him. Never sure when he’ll turn up. Never sure he’ll stay away.”

“Who was Fred Martenson?”

Roger stood looking at David. David didn’t know why, but he felt he was being evaluated, sort of like someone was doing some new, fancy medical scan on his soul. finally Roger spoke. “Have lunch with me tomorrow. Noon. Down at Purley’s Cafe.”

That caught David by surprise, but after a few moments of reflection, he decided that he’d better take any offer of friendship. There was no evidence that Roger had any power in the church, but he couldn’t refuse any offer of friendship.

“OK,” he said, and then somehow found the will to move. He waved at Roger who just nodded and went back to work.

 


At the cafe the next day, David was surprised when he found two people already at the table. There was someone with Roger, perhaps a few years older, but not by much. As David approached their table they both rose.

“Let me introduce the Right Reverend Dr. Fred Martenson,” said Roger with what was clearly a grin.

Fred held out his hand, but then looked back at Roger. “Oh cut it out!” he said. “We don’t use those titles, and even if I was in an organization that did, I wouldn’t be entitled to the titles. He enunciated ‘title’ so that it was clear he was enjoying the repetition.

David froze. After the night before, it was like meeting a legend. Or a ghost. He wasn’t sure which.

“Come on,” said Fred. “I won’t break your hand or anything.”

David remembered courtesy and shook hands with the legend. “It’s just a bit disconcerting, meeting a legend,” he said. He thought ‘legend’ was better than ‘ghost.’

“Or a ghost,” said Fred.

They all laughed.

“There are those who are legends in their own minds,” Fred continued. “And then there is something much worse. Legends in a church. You might think I should say ‘in the minds of church members,’ but it seems as though these legends, or ghosts, live in the very structure of a church. They’re at least as hard to exorcise as the demons that come out only by prayer and fasting.”

“But if you did all those things …” David’s voice kind of faded.

“But I didn’t.”

“You mean the board members were lying?”

“I think you have to know that you’re lying for it to be a lie. The board members are just repeating the church’s tradition.”

“I don’t understand.”

Roger interrupted, shocking David again. “It’s the youth group and the youth pastor that existed when I was growing up. Fred was my youth pastor. He’s only four years older than I am. I was one of his senior youth. And he was a good youth pastor. But when he got called to pastor a large church, peoples’ pride got in the way. His story started growing.”

“I met Roger again when he was in college.”

David was stunned again. Roger the groundskeeper in college?

“He was studying philosophy.” Fred paused, allowing David to recover from this next shock. “He discussed some of the questions he had about the Christian faith with me. So we started meeting. We’ve continued to meet since.”

“I saw the legend grow in the church,” Roger interrupted, “and I decided to do my best to remember things as they actually were. It was, indeed, a good time. But to be honest, young man, you have a chance to do even better.”

“But how do I overcome the legend?”

“You have to do that in your own mind,” said Fred. “If you win in your mind, you’ll be fine.”

“But won’t the church fire me?”

“Not hardly,” said Roger. “They didn’t fire the four youth pastors before you. They just drove them off. If you can’t be driven off, you have a great opportunity.”

“This kind comes out only by prayer and fasting,” said Fred. “The board of elders is going to pray, sort of. But the only person who’s going to pray and fast is you.”

Who is left among you who experienced our youth ministry in its former glory? How does it look now? Doesn’t it look like nothing to you? (paraphrase of Haggai 2:3)

 

Frederik Pohl Dies at 93

Science fiction great Frederik Pohl has died at age 93 (HT: Centauri Dreams). He was thinking of publishing projects right up to the last! He provided me (and so very many others) with many hours of great reading. He will be missed.

Tlisli Argues Strategy

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of any character, place, or event to anything in the real world is purely coincidental, not to mention ridiculous. This is part of the Tlisli Series.
Copyright © Henry E. Neufeld, 2013

The Inraline had a relaxed way of dealing with authority when in small groups, but became more formal as the group got larger and the rank of the official got higher. The fort commander, Orlin by name, stood in silence at the door while nobody moved or spoke. The idea of the commander walking in on the court was so shocking that many in the room scarcely breathed. Either someone was in serious trouble or there was an extreme emergency.

“Adjourn your court, Super,” said the commander. Then he listed several names, including Azzesh and Tlisli, and ordered them to his bridge.
Tlisli had no idea what the various ranks were or what a “bridge” might be. Later she would learn that the Inraline built their entire military around naval traditions. “Super” referred to their intermediate ranks, sort of like petty officers. Those in the regular ranks were called simply sailors, though they would be clled oldiers when on duty based on land. Commanders came in junior, senior, and full rank, and served as officers junior to a captain. Then there was the rank of Captain-Commander, which was equivalent to a ship’s captain when not commanding a seagoing ship. Orlin was a Commander-Captain,but tradition denied him the title as his command included no seagoing ships. Riverboats did not count in Inraline minds.

To Tlisli, however, it simply seemed that she was surrounded by people who had titles of rank and knew where they were going, while she did not.
The reason a command center was called a bridge, even in a fort like this, was that Inraline officers tried to feel like they were on a ship. Orlin’s bridge was in the outer tower of his fort, overlooking the river. Azzesh thought the commander very foolish. The odds that an attack would come directly down the river were poor. Any reasonably competfent foe would realize that the Inraline troops were much more prepared to defend from the water side. Indeed, those despised riverboats would be considered decent small ships by many navies. On the other hand, fighting in the jungle was not an Inraline strength. She had saidas much to Orlin, but he didn’t quite get her point. Any real attack would come down the river, would it not? Thus obviously the best defenses must face the river.

So as they sat down in the room called the bridge they could look out windows over the river and see the confluence. One couldn’t look far to the west, because the bulk of the fort was in that direction. Azzesh and Tlisli couldn’t see the palisade that formed the jungle side wall. That palisade was largely designed to keep the animal life out, and not as a major defensive barrier. Across the river one could see the towers on the eastern shore of the river, as well as the one on the tip of land  between the rivers. Again, Azzesh thought these were fairly foolish ideas. It was probably worthwhile to have forts there to watch river traffic, but these towers were not well equipped to defend themselves from land, and could easily be isolated.

On the positive side, there were regular towers or high points around the area, and the Inraline maintained a good signaling system, using mirrors in sunlight, flags in appropriate conditions, and lanterns at night.

Despite the seriousness of the way Orlin had summoned them all, when doubtless a messenger would have done, he seemed in no hurry to get them settled down and tell them what they were all here for. Azzesh was ready to resent being called in this fashion, unless Orlin got to the point quickly and offered her money or other advantages in exchange for her involvement. She didn’t work for him. Tlisli, on the other hand, was just bemused at being called. She had no idea what she was doing here. The very idea of being in a room filled with officials frightened her in a way nearly dying in the jungle had not. But Azzesh was busy greeting various people and generally ignoring Tlisli, as was everyone else.

Finally Orlin called the meeting to order. “We got news yesterday courtesy of Azzesh that there was a patrol of the God-Emperor’s troops with a boat up the eastern branch. Now this morning we get word that Sun-troops are actually holding a village to the north. One young man escaped and brought word. We need to decide what to do about this. I have already dispatched messengers to Tevelin to inform my superiors of this threat. We had previously known that there were occasional GES agents in the jungle around here, which was not surprising considering their ambition. But to have them around the area with boats is a new variety of threat entirely.”

Azzesh seemed rather taken aback by this speech, Tlisli thought. She was trying to understand the issue with the boats. If there were Grand Empire of the Sun troops around in the jungle, why would one be particularly concerned if they had boats. In fact, from what she could see, about the stupidest thing the GES troops could do would be to try to use boats to assault this outpost. On the other hand, from what she’d seen of the western side of the town, there was very little to prevent the GES troops from invading from that direction.

The room had devolved in chaos, as various people argued about recalling patrol boats, reinforcing the waterfront, and making certain that nobody could approach unseen via the river. She would certainly not attack this city (as she thought of it) from the river. But it would take less troops than her home town had had available (before the GES came) to isolate this fortress. And with the fortress isolated, commerce would come to a halt. Using the cover provided by the fortress itself, it would be possible to besiege, and eventually to take the fortress unless it was resupplied by river very early.

Azzesh looked at Tlisli, watching the girl’s expression change as the debate went on. Azzesh was of the opinion that these debates on his bridge provided the best explanation for why Orlin had been assigned to command this fortress. He simply was not at all decisive, and in his view, the river was the world. It wasn’t an ocean, to his great disappointment, but it was water, and water was the key.

“So you think they are thinking poorly,” she said quietly to Tlisli.

“I would not attack this town from the river.”

“I thought your brains were more functional than you ever allowed me to see. Tell me how you would attack this town.”

“I’d bring troops in from the western side, overrun the town quickly, and then besiege the fortress. A few simple siege engines could then take this fortress with relatively little problem.”

“Don’t underestimate the fighting capability of the Inraline soldiers.”

“No, I think they seem very skilled as fighters, but if the GES is nearby in any numbers, they’ll be outnumbered by as much as ten to one, and if there is any one thing that the GES is good at, it’s disciplined, coordinated attacks.”

“So you listened as your father and brothers discussed the military situation around your town.”

“Yes.”

“And now things start coming together for you.”

“I suppose.”

They didn’t notice that things were getting quieter and quieter in the room.

“Lady Azzesh,” said Commander Orlin suddenly. Azzesh grimaced. When Orlin, or any of the other Inraline she knew, called her “Lady Azzesh” it usually meant that they were trying to get her officially involved in something.

“Yes?” she said.

“Did you and Tlisli have something to share with us?”

“Well, no, we were just discussing how we would conquer your outpost if we had the job of doing so.”

“And how would that be?”

Azzesh looked at Tlisli. “Tell him, why don’t you?”

Tlisli paused to gather he thoughts. The idea of a mere girl getting involved in such a council bothered her, and that feeling made her realize how much of her upbringing was still with her. At the same time, she was losing some of her exaggerated respect for people with official positions.

“Well, if I were your enemy, which I’m not, and I had anything more than a few hundred troops with me, I would simply attack your town from the west. It wouldn’t take any great master strategy. I think you’d be overrun in a matter of minutes. This fort would hold out, but with the town out of action, it’s days would be numbered. Even if the troops then withdrew, the basis of your commerce would be destroyed.”

“But we’d still have the docks and the forts themselves!” said Orlin.

I’m in it now, thought Tlisli. Aloud she said, “But the docks aren’t the basis of your commerce. I’m new here, but I’m guessing the reason people trade with you is that they have confidence in these fortresses and in your power to protect them. If you lose that sense of power and confidence–and the destruction of the town would accomplish that–then the basis of your commerce is gone.”

“But where else will people sell their goods?” asked someone.

“The GES will kill people who try to trade with you. They will then quit selling their goods to you because they are afraid. All this happened around my home city before they took over.”

Azzesh was nodding agreement. She was delighted to hear Tlisli using some of her knowledge. The girl had been so passive. Of course, she would never let Tlisli know that she felt that way!

An argument broke out again all over the room. It went on for another half an hour. When it was over, nothing new had been decided. It appeared that the staff of the fort and its commander couldn’t imagine anything except defending the fortress itself. They disagreed with Tlisli that the GES troops would attack from the land and continued to expect any substantial attack to come by river.

As the meeting broke Tlisli turned to Azzesh. “So why did they invite us?” she asked.

“Oh, that’s simple,” said Azzesh. “They want to make sure that friends of mine in the city know that I was at the meeting. Then if something goes wrong they can point out that I was at the meeting and hope nobody notices that I didn’t really approve of their plans.”

As she said this, Azzesh was leading Tlisli out of the room. She briefly acknowledged Orlin, who tried to act cordial. He was clearly hoping that Azzesh’s contacts in the city would not get a bad report. He did not believe that there was any real threat to the fort, or any long term or significant threat to their commerce.

 

 

And the winner is …

The winner of my giveaway via the Christian Book Lovers Blog Hop Jodi Woody, who entered by every possible means. It was the Twitter entry that won! She will be receiving an e-mail notifying her of her win.

 

Giveaway – The Christian Book Lovers Hop

CBL Hop

July 1: It appears that the hop is over! I’ll have the winner posted here before the end of the day. I had a number of comments via social media, so I need to collate the entries.

No, you don’t have to hop up and down or run around. You just have to hop from blog to blog with your fingers. The Christian Book Lovers Hop is sponsored by The Readers’ Realm and Spirit Filled Kindle.

How does this work? Well, this is a first for me. Yes, I’ve done giveaways for my company (Energion Publications), but I haven’t done one on a blog hop, and I haven’t done one from my personal blog. Each blog on the list offers something free to readers, and also links to the list of blogs who are participating in the hop. You’ll find this list at the bottom of this post. Be sure to check out the other offers.

So what am I giving away? (Get to the point, you say?)

I’m offering one copy of my book Stories of the Way, a collection of short stories designed to challenge your thinking about spiritual things. And since that’s a fairly small book, and just a $9.99 value, I’m also offering one more of my books (+ Tales from Jevlir, you choose), and one book you can choose from my company’s catalog (main imprint, EnerPower Press, and Enzar Empire Press). That’s a total of three free books! If you’re the winner, just let me know which additional books you’d like when I notify you that you’re the winner.

How do you enter?

Just comment on this post. Since I’m trying to track comments on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ as well, sharing the link or commenting there should work as well. You can have one entry for each of those three social media platforms. Just comment or share.

One thing I’ve learned from previous giveaways is that occasionally someone wins and then I can’t contact them. Make sure that I can discover who you are so I can let you know you won. Worst case, check back here and look for a comment and post announcing the winner.