“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.
“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)
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.
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.”
“And now things start coming together for you.”
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.
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.
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.
He wasn’t really very angry. He’d call it just a bit past annoyed. The conversation with his wife had gone the wrong direction, and he was angry enough to be tense.
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of any persons, places, or events to anything in real life is purely coincidental. Copyright © 2013
Henry E. Neufeld
It wasn’t a major incident. The driver at the light had gone through just a little late. Late enough to be going through on red. He’d seen her face looking his way as he raised that middle finger. It made him fell better, or so he told himself.
She was having a bad day. Having someone show her the middle finger put her over the line. She was normally patient, but that nasty man at the light had no business making an obscene gesture at her. She was in a hurry! She hadn’t been very late at the light. And because she was in a hurry, and she was so angry already, when the driver in front of her was slow to get moving (on his cell phone) she laid into her horn and kept it going until the car got moving.
He, in turn, was receiving bad news on the phone. He had taken about all he could take, and that woman behind him laying into her horn was just too much. He got moving, but pounded on his steering wheel and yelled obscenities, which nobody at all heard.
His next turn was onto the entrance ramp to the interstate, followed by a merge. Because he was so angry he was driving too fast. He knew it, but he didn’t really care. How dare that woman rush him! He sped up some more to cut in directly in front of a pickup truck.
The pickup truck driver was distracted. She was saying something to a child in the back seat. She barely avoided a collision. She was angry enough already at the child, and having this driver cut her off sent her over the edge. She knew the offending driver could hear her, so she yelled at the child instead. He started crying.
The child was also angry. He didn’t think he’d deserved all that yelling. He decided to work it out by throwing his toy truck at his mother in the front seat.
His mother was just about to change lanes, and just as she should have been looking in her blind spot, the toy truck hit her. She didn’t see the truck in the lane to her left.
The truck driver hit his brakes. Hard. But the laws of physics were against him and nearly thirty vehicles behind him.
Nobody really understood why the driver of the pickup truck made that turn at that moment. How could they?
“How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!” — James 3:5b (NRSV)
I’ve posted before on the idea of what is great literature and what is not, and particularly on the tendency of some people to become gatekeepers over the distinction. I personally reject the very idea of reading lists. If people think my reading is eccentric (it is), or that I have not read certain pieces of supposedly classic literature (in many cases, they’re right), that’s fine with me.
Sam Sacks enters this debate (not with me on my tiny blog, but with the heavies) with a post Canon Fodder: Denouncing the Classics on The New Yorker site. I call attention to it because I think it’s interesting, but I also think it tends to miss the point. This is because it falls into the trap of thinking that a word must have one referent. There are at least two senses of “classic,” at least as I would use them. First, there is the classic that is so great (in my opinion), that it deserves to be read widely. Thus I will use the term “classic” of literature that might not be old enough to be considered a classic by more normal people. (The question is, which is to be master–that’s all!) The second use is illustrated by my parenthetical quote. A classic is something that has worked its way so far into the way we think about things that it would be helpful for you to have read it in order to understand your own culture. But in my view you won’t make it through any good sized list without neglecting something anyhow. So I make no apologies for leaning my literature reading a bit more to the contemporary than “true literati” would find acceptable. I’m not a “true literati.” I’m just a publisher. (Note the use of scare quotes, or in this case, perhaps, disdain quotes.)
In any case, I remain convinced that choice in reading is personal, and that you can objectively determine if literature is popular or influential, but not whether it is good or not. That’s a matter of taste. Mostly.
… at On Planting Seeds. Some good stuff here!
At first I really didn’t want anyone to know.
Well, that’s not quite accurate. I wanted my wife to know, but only so that she would fell less alone in her pain. But otherwise I didn’t want anyone to know.
But as I think back on that time, I have to admit that wasn’t accurate either. I didn’t mind if other people knew about the sadness. I just didn’t want them to talk about it, and even more I didn’t want them to make me talk about it.
Unlike most stories on this blog, this story is as true as I can make it, and you are free to use it in any way that will be helpful.
It was just a depressing time. A couple of weeks before, I had been watching Hurricane Ivan approach. My wife and I have a simple rule. If there’s a storm above category 1 approaching the coast near enough, we’re out of here. But our son James was in the last few weeks or even days of his life, and we couldn’t move him far enough to get away from the storm. I tried to discuss it with my wife, but she just told me she couldn’t handle one more decision. “Just tell me what we’re going to do,” she said. So I worried (a lot) and prayed (a little)–how often that’s the case when we most need the opposite!–and decided we’d go to a friend’s place that was much more hurricane-ready than ours.
After the storm we’d seen the devastation around the area. But our house was still there and even had power–partially. James wanted to be back in his house, so we moved back. Struggling with the limitations left by the storm didn’t help at all.
But James was able to be in his own house when God called him home. It is now going on 9 years, and just typing that sentence still brings tears to my eyes. I’m sitting in the same room, in reach of the place where his hospital bed was located. I can see him now.
I’ve had people tell me that it can’t be as bad for me, because James is my stepson. I hope they’re wrong. If it gets harder than this, I don’t want to experience it. I don’t even want to know about it.
For days I would regularly hear his voice somewhere else in the house, clearly enough that I would get up to go to where he was, only to suffer the shock of finding he wasn’t actually there. While I haven’t heard that voice for some time, I can still picture everything. I see the bed. I see James. I see his little dog Barnabas under the bed waiting and watching. After James died we thought we’d lose Barnabas as well. But after about two weeks, he decided he’d make do with Grandpa. I wasn’t James, but I took him for his walkies. But there would still be those moments. I’d usually walk Barnabas in the morning and as James went to school, he’d stop the car and greet his dog. For as long as Barnabas lived, he would stop on those walks and look at any cars that passed by, waiting for the right one.
I had to learn to talk about it. It wasn’t just for me. Jody and I found that when we taught about just about anything, if the subject of bereavement and loss came up at all it would take over the conversation. There were so many people suffering and wondering why. They wondered if there was something wrong with them. Shouldn’t they be joyful as Christians? But still the sadness is there.
And so I’d talk about it. How does it work? My wife and I experience this grief differently. For her, it’s Christmas, James’s birthday, and the anniversary of his death that bring back the memories. For me, I remember mostly the day in June when I called his doctor and got the results of a set of tests. They said that the cancer was back–again. James had extracted a promise that I would call him as soon as I got word, no matter what. I should confess here that he was definitely more courageous that I am, and less willing to tell himself a happy story in order to avoid the reality. Then I had the task of telling Jody. She was on a mission trip and out of reach by phone. My only option was to send an e-mail, and then spend the hours waiting for her to get it (via an unreliable dial-up connection), knowing what kind of devastation it would wreak when it arrived. June is just a bad month for me, every year.
It’s a depressing story, isn’t it? It’s also as true as I can tell it, every word.
But it isn’t the whole story. I want you to know that I don’t have a bunch of answers. I can’t tell you why James died, except for the basic science. That’s what cancer does. I don’t have a list of wonderful things that will make it OK. Oh, I do have a list of wonderful things that he accomplished in his life, and even things that were accomplished by his death. But they don’t make it OK. None of those things make me feel repaid in some way for the fact that I never got to see him march in a college marching band, or get married and raise a family, or become a professional musician.
It’s not that I can explain why. But I can say this: God is with me. God is with us. There are things we cannot understand, things we probably will never understand, but we do have hope, and we can have joy.
For every one of those times when I sit here with tears in my eyes thinking about the loss, there are many more when I remember James with joy, and celebrate him in my heart. I remember the day he’d just gotten his learner’s permit. We were headed to Panama City, Florida, a bit over a hundred miles. Jody had explained to me that it was my job to teach James to drive. She couldn’t handle the teaching. As soon as he knew he’d have his permit, he started talking to me about driving. By the time we were backing out of the driveway, he’d concluded he would just drive the first few miles. As those miles passed, he thought he could drive to the interstate. Was that OK with me? It was. We got to the ramp, and he thought he’d just try getting on the interstate. (In case you’re wondering, he was very good behind the wheel. I had high expectations and he exceeded them.) Once we were on the interstate and had gone a few miles, he figured he’d be OK until we got off the interstate again. Driving in a strange city, he told me, would probably be going too far. But then we got off the interstate and it didn’t seem so bad. He didn’t get out from behind the wheel until we were parked in our friends’ driveway.
Then there was the fact that no surface anywhere was safe. If he had drumsticks, he’d be beating rhythms with them. If there were no sticks, hands would do. You always knew you had a drummer in the house. If you suggested he should stop, he’d look shocked that anyone could mind the sound of a bit of rhythm.
I don’t think it’s a matter of letting go of the sadness. I think it’s right for me to feel loss when I remember James. He’s in a better place, but I miss him. I’m going to continue to miss him. There are the moments when the loss is as strong as the original moment.
But so is the presence, so are the memories, and so is God.
I can be sad, but also joyful. I can feel loss, but also gain. I’m in much less danger of forgetting that I’m a pilgrim and a stranger in this land, waiting for my true home.
As Christians, we don’t need to forget. We don’t need to deny. We need to keep everything in perspective. Consider the incarnation. Jesus is fully human. He experienced our sorrows and suffering. But Jesus is also fully divine, capable of lifting us above. We can’t forget either one. We can’t let one take over for the other (Hebrews 2:9-18, 4:14-16, 7:26-28).
We don’t need to deny. We don’t need to forget. But we also don’t have to let the sadness rule our lives. We have the means of living with and living through.
We can rejoice!
(This story was written for and submitted to the one word at a time blog carnival – sadness.)