Neither – Nor

There is, says Paul …

Neither Jew nor Greek
yet they have different histories
different ways of life
different languages
different cultures

Neither slave nor free
yet they still have different backgrounds
different economic status
different concerns
different ways of living.

Neither male nor female
yet we have different physiologies
different psychologies
different interests
different ways of relating.

And now, perhaps …

Neither black nor white

Neither rich nor poor

Neither gay nor straight

Neither left nor right

Neither north nor south

For we are all one in Christ Jesus
in all our diversity
in all our debates
in all our differences
in all our wrongness
in all our rightness
in all our strengths
in all our weaknesses.

For it is not of works
no works of greatness
no works of charity
no works of worship
no works of knowledge
no works of belief
no works of knowing
no works of understanding
no works of writing
no works of speaking
no works of silence
no works of anything at all.

It is the gift of God.

By grace.

Because Jesus is faithful.

— Galatians 3:28, Ephesians 2:9

(Featured Image credit:

The Dependable Assassin

In the history books he received just a brief mention. He was called Rutahgren (accented on the ah, though few people knew). If he was given any sort of title, it was “the Destroyer.” He was credited with assassinating Almar the Just around a century ago, following which there had been two or three decades of sheer chaos, known quite creatively as “the troubled times.” You decided how long the troubled times had lasted based on your tolerance for chaos.

Again, according to the history books, Rutahgren (the Destroyer) had been caught by the palace guards, tortured, and eventually executed by impalement on the palace grounds. Since executions usually took place in the city square, some were surprised by this. Most, however, figured that since Rutahgren (the Destroyer) had killed the reigning king, the royal family had wanted to keep all the fun to themselves. Executions, even by impalement, were public events, parties even.

It was said that this was the only time that an assassin had ever successfully killed the reigning monarch. If someone pointed out that several kings had died by violence in the centuries long history of the small kingdom, they would be told that those killings were accomplished by insiders. As an assassin, Rutahgren (the Destroyer) was, and would remain (never fear!), unique.

There were two places where the story was told quite differently.

The first of these was the Illustrious Guild of Critical Services, IGCS for short. IGCS had offices in a solid, upper class neighborhood in the royal city. Ordinary people wondered what “critical services” might be. Government officials and the police simply referred to the IGCS as the assassins’ and thieves’ guild. It was more accurate, though slightly less aesthetically pleasing.

I suppose I must explain why IGCS was allowed to exist, right in the middle of the capital city of a (generally) law abiding country. There were two reasons for this. First, because no matter how many times the police searched the building, they were unable to find any evidence of illegal activity. It was hard to get judges to imprison or execute people because “everybody knew” that they were assassins or thieves. Even thoroughly bribed judges wanted some specific victim and target!

Further, and as the second reason, too many government officials had made use of IGCS services at one time or another. These services rarely involved killing anyone. Usually, the goal was to produce filing errors. You know, the type that result in documents missing from well-marked folders, or perhaps showing up somewhere they had no business being. That sort of thing. It was hard to get the prosecutor to work very hard to put someone in jail, when that someone knew precisely what had happened to that contract he had wanted to get out of.

Thus it was convenient for everyone that IGCS just sat there behind its sign.

Now where was I? Oh, yes. Inside the guild building, when instructors talked to trainees, they told a rather different story about Rutahgren. In their stories he was dubbed “the Faithful.” Now some may have problems with an organization of thieves and assassins advocating faithfulness, but so they did. It was said that once they accepted a task, they carried it out. It was also said that they never, ever revealed who hired them.

In their story, Rutahgren was indeed an assassin. He had been hired by a member of the government to get rid of Almar the Just, because, in the way of government officials, he felt that justice was much overrated, and that Almar was just too just! They never said the name of the official who had hired Rutahgren, because, of course, they never told such a thing. It amused the instructors to pretend that they actually had found out by sneaky stratagem, and were concealing this knowledge from their students. But the fact was that nobody knew, because Rutahgren, as a good guild member, had never told. Anybody.

Over a period of years, the story went, Rutahgren had tried to get into range to assassinate Almar the Just, but had never succeeded. The royal guards were just too good. That they nonetheless never caught him during those failed attempts could be credited to the fact that Rutahgren was quite good as well. He always managed to withdraw. There were even a couple of innocent people, whose only crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, who were executed for failed attempts.

There were also many close calls. There were members of the guild who told Rutahgren (and any senior guild member who would listen), that this was a contract they should fail to keep. They could even return the money provided by the one who had hired them. But Rutahgren refused to quit. Finally, he determined that they only way to be absolutely certain he would kill the king was for him to plan it as a suicide mission. There was no way to accomplish it and get away alive.

So he did that. He had a perfect plan to infiltrate the group of courtiers around the king. It was accomplished in a place where the royal guard was less concerned about assassins, precisely because the king was surround by courtiers and guards, and none of his other subjects. Rutahgren approached the king and killed him using a long thin dagger. He had taken the precaution of coating the dagger with poison, and having a wizard place a quiet but deadly death spell on it, and when he approached the king with a particularly flattering remark, and a particularly abject offer of obeisance and subjection, he also ran the dagger very precisely through the king’s heart. The king was dead before the poison could circulate. The spell of death ensured he stayed that way.

Rutahgren knew he’d be tortured for information, and he didn’t want to reveal the one who had hired him, so he had made even more elaborate plans to insure that he would die as well and not be captured. His plans were unnecessary, however, as he died under a barrage of attacks from the startled guards. It was said, in the IGCS, that he died with a smile. He had accomplished his mission.

In the IGCS, he was presented as the perfect example of a true assassin, carrying out his mission no matter what the circumstances and cost. Some instructors included a footnote about being very careful what you agreed to accomplish.

In the second place, his story was remembered a bit differently. This was in the royal guard. The guard could forgive themselves when a prince or a government minister, granted free access to his majesty (or his or her highness, or whoever), turned traitor and killed someone they were guarding. How could the guard be expected to protect the king from someone the king invited to be there? They could search for weapons, but sometimes the king even forbade them that. They didn’t really condone missing any assassin, yet they felt differently about insiders.

Rutahgren, however, had placed one single blemish on their record of keeping outsiders out, and they too told his story in training. They didn’t attempt to sugar-coat it. The guard had failed. The facts of the story sounded much like those told in the IGCS. But the lesson was different.

They also called the assassin Rutahgren the Faithful. They’d conclude his story by telling their students, would-be guardsmen, that they needed to be just as faithful, just as determined, just as careful, and just as willing to sacrifice as the assassin. “Disapprove of his profession all you like,” they’d say, “but remember, and emulate, his faithfulness.”

(Luke 16:1-8)

(Featured image is based on Adobe Stock [#106106044] and I have licensed it for use here. It is not public domain.)

Thanks for the Beer

Sam (short for Samson, not Samuel), picked up the stein of beer he had just paid for, gave it an initial taste to savor the taste, and then followed with a gulp. He enjoyed his beer in the evening after a hard day of work.

He took a quick look around the bar, searching for faces he knew. He wasn’t much of a talker, but he loved to sit with friends and just be there.

Today, however, he saw a man he didn’t know sitting alone at one of the high tables, an empty stein in front of him. The only conclusion one could come to—and as usual, Sam came to it quickly—was that the man was wearing high quality clothes, but had been wearing the same ones for at least a couple of days. He was alone at the table, and he looked alone, absolutely alone.

Sam walked over to the table. “Hi. I’m Sam. Can I buy you a refill?” he asked.

The man looked back blankly, like he didn’t understand the question. Sam just stood there. He figured the man would figure it out in his own time.

After what seemed like a couple of minutes, the man nodded and kind of pushed the stein over. It didn’t look very polite, but Sam didn’t care. Without knowing why, he sensed that was about all the man could do.

He went to the bar, got the man’s drink refilled, paid, and went back to the table. As he sat down, he remembered what his pastor had said in church the past Sunday. He’d talked about being a witness, introducing people to Jesus. “Witness” didn’t make much sense to Sam. He understood introducing people to Jesus, but he could never figure out how you did it. If Jesus was one of his normal friends, he’d take him to one of his friends and say, “Hey Bob, meet Jesus.” Then he’d just sit there quietly and people would talk. He just couldn’t quite get to those intellectual things people kept saying about Jesus.

Sam wasn’t stupid. In fact, the pastor reminded him regularly that he wasn’t. He’d talk about different skills, different ways minds worked, and how he, the pastor, couldn’t build a house the way Sam could. “I’d be a real fool on a building site,” he’d say. Then he’d bring up some complex topic that Sam couldn’t understand (and didn’t want to), and Sam would smile and move on. Trouble was, he thought, the pastor was never on a building site where Sam could talk studs, joists, fasteners and such-like, while Sam was in church every Sunday where he heard about long words that never meant anything to him.

Jesus was his friend. In fact, Jesus was his best friend. Jesus didn’t talk to him and he didn’t talk to Jesus. They just sat together. Sam liked it that way.

He sat down and shoved the beer across the table. Then he thought, I should ask a blessing or something. He couldn’t imagine why. Bless the beer (and pretzels) in a bar? He’d never heard of such a thing. Besides, he didn’t know how one said a blessing. If it was one of his friends …

“Hey Jesus,” he said, looking slightly upward, “thanks for the beer!” He paused a moment as he grabbed a pretzel. “And for the pretzels too,” he added. For some reason, Sam handed the pretzel to the man across the table. Neither of them offered another word.

“May I join you?” said someone.

Both men looked to the side. Between them was a man, probably a construction worker, they thought. His hands were calloused. His clothes were the sort you wore on a building site, and they showed signs of wear and the dirt and dust of a work site.

“Sure,” said Sam. The other man just nodded at the newcomer.

“Get you a beer?” asked Sam.

“Sure, thanks,” he responded. His voice was the voice of the construction site as well.

With the beer delivered, they all three sat in silence for several minutes, nursing their beers slowly.

Finally, the newcomer looked at the man across from Sam and spoke. “It’s OK to run away from evil,” he said. “Sometimes that’s the only thing to do.”

The man jerked, startled. Then he just stared.

“When you ran, you should have taken your family.”

His stare got more intense, as though he was in a state of shock.

“You need to go get them.”

“I can’t.” The man spoke for the first time. “I used my last money on my first beer. I only have this one because Sam here bought it for me. I have nothing left.” His tone indicated that by “nothing” he was talking about more than money.

“If you try, I think you’ll find you have the resources,” said the stranger. Then he got up.

As he left he turned to Sam and said, “Hey, Sam. Thanks for the beer.”

For no reason he could imagine, Sam reached into his wallet and pulled out a twenty. He put it on the table in front of his new friend. Almost as if by magic several other bills joined it as people from around the room stepped up to contribute.

None of them knew why they did it either. They just knew that Sam was solid. If he thought the man needed the money, the man needed the money.

Matthew 18:20, Matthew 10:42



A Sonnet in Response to Psalm 65


By strength you founded mountains high and grand.
You still the roaring seas and streams abate.
From dawn to dusk and dusk to dawn your hand
Brings forth rejoicing, glory crowns your gate.

Your awesome deeds, your valiant acts so great.
Sustain our life, and give your servants care.
A pathway to your temple you create,
All people walk within its pathways fair.

Iniquity, the deeds we sadly dare,
They overwhelm us, past our strength to face.
Yet you forgive us, take us in your care,
Providing joy and welcome in your place.

So praise to you will always be our song.
All glory, honor, strength to you belong.

(Image credit: Every so often I like to play with poetic forms. This one is trying to be a Spenserian sonnet. And no, I don’t imagine myself an actual poet.)

The Pastoral Tithing Visit

cow_tithe_sm“I’m here to talk about your tithe,” said the pastor.

There was a moment of stunned silence at these words. Then Mr. Brent moved his oxygen tank just a bit and unnecessarily adjusted the breathing apparatus. He wheezed just a little bit.

“We have been absolutely faithful about our tithe. A full 10% of our income, small as it is, goes to the church.”

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of any of the persons or events portrayed to the real world is strictly coincidental. Copyright © 2015
Henry E. Neufeld

“Before taxes, too!” put in Mrs. Brent. Her husband looked calm. She looked affronted, as though someone had accused her of being unfaithful to her husband.

The pastor tried to open his mouth, but he didn’t have time to start speaking.

“We have been faithful members of the church for the last 50 years,” continued Mrs. Brent, “and to think that they’d send the pastor to suggest we weren’t paying enough or hadn’t been faithful! It’s just too much to bear!” The expression on her face suggested she didn’t intend to bear it either, at least not quietly.

“Now honey,” said Mr. Brent, again cutting off the pastor’s attempt to cut in, “we gave not expecting anything in return. It’s our pastor’s right to come and hold us accountable for our stewardship.”

“He has no right to accuse us of things we haven’t done! I know who started this,” she said, turning to the pastor. “It was that old biddy Mrs. Grace. What a misnomer that is! She’s never showed anyone any grace at all! I bet she suggested we were making more than our tithe would indicate. And I know she sneaks peaks at the church records when she visits the office. That church secretary has no clue about keeping those records confidential!”

The pastor again tried to open his mouth, but didn’t quite manage it. He’d wanted to say that Mrs. Grace had nothing to do with it, that he hadn’t even looked at the records himself. In fact, he would have never started a conversation like that except that he had been certain they’d understand that as such faithful givers he certainly wasn’t there to ask for money. Obviously he’d missed something!

“Now honey, the pastor hasn’t actually accused us of anything,” said Mr. Brent.

“And well he shouldn’t!” She turned back to the pastor. “Our voluntary giving has fallen, but that’s because of our medical bills. We simply cannot afford to give as much as we used to. We have to keep up our utility payments and for medical supplies. Medicare doesn’t cover everything, you know. Or maybe you don’t, being a young man. But there are considerable expenses. And you know the pension fund from the old plant went bust. Who knows when we’ll get anything from that.”

“Perhaps, honey, we should ask the young man what he’s here for,” said Mr. Brent.

“Well, to tell us we aren’t being faithful in our giving, right?” said Mrs. Brent, looking at the pastor again. He was, indeed, very young, she thought. And he looked stunned.

“So what are you here for?” she asked.

“Well,” he said, “you folks have been faithful members of the church for, what is it, 50 years?”

“We’ve been there for 57 years just last month,” said Mrs. Brent, now holding her head high. “And until all the health issues, we were there every Sunday. Every Wednesday too, and many other times.”

“Yes,” the pastor said, “that’s what people told me. Even Mrs. Grace.” He couldn’t resist that last remark, and he saw Mrs. Brent’s face tighten just a bit at the name. “But the reason I wanted to talk about tithing to you was not that I think you’ve given too little. I think you’ve given enough, and you may have given too much.”

“How’s that?” asked Mr. Brent. “You can’t outgive God!”

“True,” said the pastor, “but you can take away the opportunity your neighbors have for doing their duty to God.”

Mrs. Brent looked like the pastor had just transformed into an alien visitor, the sort who would leave a UFO parked on the front lawn.

Mr. Brent just remained calm as he said, “I think you’d better explain, young man.”

“You see,” the pastor replied, “in the church we’re supposed to care for one another. I could argue with you about whether tithing is the best way to do that, but we’ll leave that be for now. But your obligation to the church is matched by the church’s obligation to you, and by our shared obligation to all those in need. That means that there comes a time when the church is supposed to help you.”

“We’ve never accepted charity,” said Mr. Brent. “Social Security, Medicare, yes. We paid into those and we’re getting back what’s owed. But we aren’t looking for any handouts.”

“You have a lot of experience and common sense, Mr. Brent. I respect that. So I think you’ll understand me when I say that someone like you has contributed to the church in many ways over these last 57 years, and so have you, Mrs. Brent. That’s part of being a community. We all contribute, and we all benefit. I know you didn’t contribute because you meant to get benefits. You just did it. Now I happen to know that you are in serious financial need, and it’s time for you to benefit in turn. That’s what I meant about your tithe.

“God will reward your faithfulness, true. But he’s going to start rewarding it through your church. This is our opportunity to give to God as represented by two of the most faithful people anyone in the church knows. I know you need at least several hundred dollars to keep some of your utilities from being cut off and to pay property taxes.

“If you refuse this, you’re denying your fellow church members the joy of giving. I know it has turned into a burden over the last year or so, but for most of those 57 years you gave that tithe with joy! Now I like giving with joy and I’m not concerned with tithing so much. You can credit that to me being young and stupid, though I’d be happy to talk to you about it some time. But you do know about joy, and you do know about need.

“Now are you cruel enough people to deny me the pleasure of writing this check?” He pulled a checkbook out of his briefcase. He was armed with the church board’s authorization to “take care of the Brents.”

There were tears in the couple’s eyes as the pastor wrote the check. It hadn’t taken long to calculate the amount. The figures were burnt into both their minds.

“I’ll hold you to talking about tithe on your next visit,” said Mr. Brent as he took it from the pastor’s hand.

“As long as you won’t think I’m being impertinent,” said the pastor, looking at Mrs. Brent.

He left her blushing.

Some thought sources for this story:

9781938434129s9781631991738sFrom the Energion Discussion Network:

“It’s Barely August. Why Am I Talking about Stewardship Now?”

What Does It Mean to Be God’s Steward?

Just How is God “Recreating the World”?



Jury Nullification and My New Book

Having just announced the release of my new book, Stories of the Way, I was interested to find a story about jury nullification, or more precisely advocacy of jury nullification today (HT: The Agitator).

One of the two new stories I wrote for this book (an additional 23 stories are from this blog), is The Juror’s Oath, and is intended to stimulate thinking on two topics: 1) When, if ever, is it OK to violate an oath, and 2) How can you be sure of what you think you know? (Coincidentally, I published an essay by Edward W. H. Vick about certainty over at a few days ago.) The story does not involve jury nullification, but does involve violation of jury instructions.

I would note regarding the news story that I would be strongly opposed to any judgment that suggested that Mr. Heicklen could not advocate his activity. Furthermore, I would suggest that any time a law forces you to behave immorally, it is a law that should be ignored. I don’t, however, think that one should ignore a law for convenience, because one doesn’t like it, or even because one is vehemently opposed to it. I would advocate violating the law only when its direction would force one to act immorally. And yes, I do think the law can and does cause that to happen from time to time.

Now back to the fun and fiction and away from the more serious commentary.


Who Felt God’s Presence?

[This is a work of fiction, Copyright © 2009, Henry E. Neufeld.  Any resemblance between the characters in this story and any in the real world is purely coincidental.]

It was a small hotel room in a small town, and Jack had driven three hours on small county roads to get there.  Now he was finally in the presence of the revival preacher he wanted to see.

“What can I do for you son?” asked the preacher.

“I need the answer to a question.  I have been trying to locate you for nearly a year.”

“Well, I’m on the road all the time.  I really don’t have a stable home address.”

“Yes, in a way that’s why I want your answer to my question.”

“Oh, I see.”

“Yes, I have a hard time believing the flashy men that I see on TV, but then, I have a hard time believing you!”

“So let’s see what we can do.  What is your question?”

“First, let me tell you my story.”


“I attended a revival you preached in small church in my home town, Glory of God Community Church.  I went with a number of my friends.  We all really planned to laugh.  You know, revival preacher, unknown, couldn’t find hardly anything about you on the internet.  You must be some kind of fraud, just not a big enough fraud to get on TV.”

The preacher chuckled.  “If I had a dollar for every time someone said that about me, maybe I could get on TV!”

“Yes, well.  I enjoyed the music.  I felt convicted by your message.  Rather than laughing, we all ended up going up to the front for your altar call.  There you were, praying out loud, occasionally in tongues, yelling, putting your hand on people’s heads, and they were falling all over the floor of that church.  I think any of the preachers on TV would have given good money for the scene, now that I look back on it.  None of this hard work praying and praying and then blowing on people that I see–just people on the ground.  It looked like maybe a tornado had gone through.”

“Well, don’t pay too much attention to what you see.”

Jack paused.  That line seemed to hit him.  “There was Bill, my best buddy, who did nothing but laugh at what the preacher had to say in church, or at the various little old ladies, as he put it, tottering around the church like they were drunk.  I think he might have believed in God somewhere deep inside, but he certainly wasn’t paying any attention to him.  He looked like he was unconscious.  Then there was Ellie, who I know was having sex with Fred, and Fred himself who said church was only good for establishing your social position–Fred plans to be in real estate–but they were both on the floor as well.  I have to confess to having been distracted by the way Ellie’s dress got pulled up when she hit the floor.  But I didn’t think of it for long as I normally would have.”

“What about you?” asked the preacher.

“Well, first, let me tell you that Beth, who was always holier than the rest of us was on the floor, but she was crying and saying something about what a horrible sinner she was and how she repented.  And then there was Randy who I was always a straight arrow, writhing on the floor like he was having a fit.

“But me, you ask.  What about me?  I was just standing there watching it all.  I really didn’t feel anything, except I felt that I had to be up front right then.  I’d have rather been anywhere else.  All those bodies on the floor?  Good TV?  Well, for me, it was simply creepy.  I thought you were nuts!  I wondered if you were using some kind of gas or something on the audience.

“At the same time, though, I knew I had to get right with God.  So I just stood there.”

“And what has happened since?” asked the preacher.

“First, my question.  How was it that all of them were hit so hard, but I was just standing there fully aware of what was going on, not crying, nothing!  I’m sure you say it was God, but how could God miss me?”

“What has happened since?” asked the preacher again.

“You’re not going to answer my question, are you?”

“You need to tell me, Jack, what has happened since that day.”  The preacher sat there quietly.

“Well, I think Ellie and Fred quit sleeping together for a while, but then they started living together.  They didn’t get married.  They still are living together.  I really have no idea what happened to Beth.  She was holier than the rest of us before, and she was holier than the rest of us afterward.  Bill, I think was very quiet for some time, but last week he passed me a note with a dirty joke about the preacher during church, so I don’t know.  Randy, on the other hand, quit school and went out to work on some sort of farm that helps feed the homeless.”

“And you.  What about you?” asked the preacher.

“Well, I just can’t get comfortable.  I’m spending a lot of time praying, and then when I pray I feel like I have to go do something, so I’ve begun candidacy for the ministry.  I study my Bible a lot.  I keep finding myself volunteering for stuff that I wouldn’t have done before.  I’ve lost all my friends, but I’ve found some new ones.  My pastor says all that stuff with people falling on the floor is just show, that it’s not God.  But God got hold of Randy, didn’t he?  Maybe he got a few days of attention from the others.  But me, I don’t have any answers.”

“And you think you should have answers.”

“Well, if God touched me, shouldn’t I know something?  Shouldn’t something have happened?”

“How much time did you spend praying before?”

“You mean other than offering the blessing at dinner when my dad said I had to?”

“Yes, other than that.”  The preacher smiled.

“Ummm, none.  I can’t think that I prayed.”

“And how much time did you spend reading your Bible?”

“None, well, except when the Sunday School teacher asked me to read a text out loud.”

“And how much time did you spend volunteering before?”

“Well, I never did any of that.”

“So did something happen that night, or not?”

Jack stopped and stared at him.  “Yes,” he said finally, “something happened.  But not what I expected.  Not what you were trying to do.”

“So you think my goal was to have people all over the floor?”

“Well, that’s what you did.”

“Son, when you walked in here I was sitting here praying and asking God if I could quit.  You see, I keep going places and preaching, and people keep falling on the floor, and then when I visit the place again, I can’t see any difference!  You’re right, I could have a TV program.  I did have a TV program, though it was only in one town.  One day a producer came to me and said, ‘Son, you’re ready to go national with that.’  ‘With what?’ I said.  ‘With your show,’ he said.  I talked with him a bit, but I already knew that wouldn’t work.  I didn’t want a show.”

“So why do you still do it?”

“Well, I could say that it’s what I know.  But actually, it’s just what happens.  I don’t know if God is doing it.  Seems to me that God has a sense of humor!  I do know that some of these churches expect it.  But every time I get discouraged, someone like you comes along who got changed.  So I just go on preaching and praying, and watch what happens.”

“But how do you explain it?  My pastor wants to know what’s your theology of the Holy Spirit.  Pneumatic something or other he calls it.”

“Pneumatology’s the word.  I learned it in Bible college.  But I have no pneumatology, really.  I just preach and pray.”

“But still, why didn’t I feel anything?”

“But you already admitted that you had to be up front.  You admitted that you felt God calling you.  You admitted that you changed.

The preacher paused, then continued slowly, with emphasis on each word:

What did you think the presence of God would feel like?”

Scripture: 1 Kings 8, and all those various passages that talk about God’s presence in all kinds of ways.

Pastoral Candidate

[This is a work of fiction.*]

Vernon noticed the arrangement of the room. As manager of a regional chain of restaurants, he was used to reading the way a meeting was set up and evaluating peoples’ attitudes.

It was hard to be precise about the five men sitting across from him. He saw eagerness and uncertainty in nearly equal measures. He was surprised to notice some fear and hostility as well. He didn’t see any reason for it. These five men could decide on their own who they would invite to be pastor of this church, and there was no threat he could hold over them. Not that he wanted to!

“Vernon,” said the chairman. “It’s OK if I call you Vernon, isn’t it?”

“Sure Mr. Wilson,” said Vernon. “You knew me when I was in the nursery around here!” He chuckled, both because he was relaxed, and because he wanted the members of the board to relax.

“OK, Vernon, I think I’ll get right to the point. We’re wondering why someone like you, who hasn’t been to church for over 10 years, thinks he is qualified to become pastor of this church.”

Vernon was surprised. “I think we’re working under some misapprehension here. I thought you had invited me here because you were considering asking me!”

“So you didn’t send us your resume? You didn’t ask Mrs. Thompson to deliver it to us?”

“No, I didn’t . . .”

“Well, then there is a misapprehension!”

“I was going to say,” Vernon continued, “that your mentioning Mrs. Thompson explains what happened. She visited me the other day and told me she believed God was still calling me to be a pastor. Then she discussed her son’s resume, and … I’m not quite sure how it happened … but she walked away with mine as an example. When you called, I assumed she’d talked you into inviting me to talk.”

Everyone was grinning now, even Gerald Adams, the senior member of the church, who was known never to smile. It was just a slight grin, but he clearly was amused by how they all had been had.

“So, do we actually have anything to talk about?” said both Vernon and Tom Wilson at nearly the same time.

The silence that resulted had a couple of board members laughing, while a couple of others were trying to restore dignity to the meeting.

“Well, Mr. Wilson . . . ”

“Call me Tom,” said Tom Wilson.

“OK Tom,” continued Vernon. “I think I need to answer your question. The reason I think you should consider inviting me to be pastor of this church is that I agree with Mrs. Thompson. I believe God is calling me here, and it’s time for me to quit sailing for Tarshish.”

It took some of the men a few moments to get the reference, but to their credit, they did.

Tom appeared to be trying to gather his thoughts. “That’s a good answer, and I admit I hoped you’d give a good answer. We could really use someone with your skills to try to revive this church. We just don’t have the numbers we had when you were a child.”

He paused again for a long time, but Vernon could tell that he wasn’t finished. Finally, he continued. “Here’s the problem. I know that you’re smart enough about finances to know you’d take a pay cut to take this position. With an MBA on top of your M.Div, no doubt you could command a much larger salary than we could offer even if you went to pastor at another church.”

“I won’t be taking a salary.” Tom’s words stopped all sound in the room.

“No salary?” asked Tom.

“No salary.”

“How are you going to live?”

“I’m actually going to demand much more than a salary.”

“Just what do you mean?”

“Do you mind if I give you a fairly long explanation? I’d like to make clear what it is I’ll provide and what I’m going to ask of you. I also want you to understand why.”

“Take your time,” said Tom.

“You may regret that!” Vernon paused a moment, making sure he had everyone’s attention. He was used to doing this sort of thing to rooms full of management trainees, but it was hard for him to do it with these men who had been the pillars of the church in his youth. They were the people he had learned to respect as a child and young person. You might not like them, but you didn’t ignore them.

“Some of what I’m going to say is going to sound insulting, but I’m asking you to hear me out.” He wouldn’t have said that to management trainees. He just would have given them the facts, and then used a combination of good humor and biting challenge to bring them up to standards.

“If I looked at this church as a branch of my company,” he continued, “I would have to rate it as a failure. I’d probably suggest closing it down and opening another store serving the same market. The reason is that this particular branch has a reputation to live down, and employees are stuck in a losing way of doing business.”

“As evidence, let me point out that your membership is half what it was when I last attended your church. The Board of Elders has only one new member, and the average age has gone up by 10 years in those same ten years. Finally, though you’re searching for a pastor, you have only had one interview, and he decided he didn’t want the job.”

“You’re wondering how I know all this. I know it because I’m a businessman, and I find such things out from habit. I’m thorough. I looked at my old church as I would have looked at a business.”

“Here’s the problem: When I looked at this church as a business, it looks terrible. Hopeless. No point. I can’t live on any salary you could reasonably offer me. It’s not even close. I couldn’t live on your entire church budget. That has a great deal to do with choices I’ve made since I left seminary, but I’m stuck with the results of those choices.”

“You’re all good men, and I believe you love the Lord. That’s why you’re still sitting there while I’m telling you things are hopeless. When I had all the numbers together I decided that I wouldn’t bother to talk to you, because there was no point. But I couldn’t shake that sense that I was being called.”

“So I started to pray. Then I started to read. I read the gospel of Mark. I read 1 Corinthians. I read Ephesians. I read Philippians. Finally I went back to Ephesians 4. Then I had my answer.”

“But before I could call you and talk to you, you called me. Mrs. Thompson was busy helping God out!”

“So what is this solution?” asked Tom.

“First, let me ask you a question you’re not going to like. Why is it that I see five men before me, but the entire work of the church is being done by the women?”

“What do you mean?” broke in Gerald Adams. “You aren’t suggesting we should have women on the Board of Elders, are you?”

“Well, I work with women on committees in my business all the time, and it works out quite well. But no, I was actually planning to challenge you with something much harder.”

“What is that?” asked Tom.

“I’m challenging you to bring your level of service up to your level of leadership. You will need to work according to Mark 10:44: ‘… whoever will be first among you will be servant of all.’”

“How many of you have visited one of the church shut-ins during the last week?”

“My wife does that,” muttered one man.

“Good for her! But do you think God wants those visits done only by the women? What about Mr. Jefferson. He’s 93 years old, but he can still carry on a pretty good conversation if you pay attention. I went to visit him yesterday, just so I could see what it feels like. I’m sure he appreciates the older ladies of the church bringing him flowers, but he’d really love a conversation with one of you men.”

The business evaluation had been something they could take easily. They knew it all, and this, Vernon was someone they had known as a child. They could pretend to be grading him on his work. Now he was under their skin and it was making them angry.

“I know this is not what you want to hear, but if the men of this church joined the women in visiting people in need, it would make a tremendous difference in this community. More importantly, it would make a tremendous difference to each one of you. Why? Because you would be doing what Jesus told you to!

“But let me ask you another question. How many of you have spoken to someone else about your faith during the last week?” He paused. “Nobody? You are believers. I know you are. You do work out there in the real world. I know you do. So what is the problem? Do you not think the gospel is important?”

“And before you get too angry, let me confess that I didn’t share with anyone either. I can talk about being a backslider at the time, but I still believed; I was just frustrated with the church. I guess I didn’t think it was that important either.”

“So here’s what I’m going to propose. I think you’re angry enough to throw me out of here. But I also know that you’re honest men and that you know your Bibles.”

“I’ll become pastor of this church. But I will do it part time and for no salary. I’ve been supplementing my income by consulting and teaching seminars. I’m going to give that part up. Instead, I’m going to teach right here at this church.”

“But there’s a condition. Every person in this room is going to become a servant along with me. I’m going to operate according to Ephesians 4:11-13. I’m going to equip. You’re going to equip. We’re all going to be teachers. But as we lead we’re also going to be servants.”

“From what I hear you really believe I have been called to do this. I believe I have been called. You wanted a pastor to do all that visiting, to reach the people of the community, and to bring in young people. You’re going to do all that, and I’m going to teach you how.”

“Now you can throw me out, and continue on the path to stagnation and death, or you can choose to answer the call to ministry–as a church.”

Vernon sat there and looked from one to another of the men. He waited for them to respond, to tell him to leave. If they did that, he could go with a clear conscience. But he felt in his heart, more desperately than he had when applying for his first job, the desire to have them say “yes.”

Finally a voice broke the silence. It was Gerald Adams.

“Son,” he said, “you have made me madder than I have been in at least 20 years. I could go whip your butt as a disrespectful, arrogant young pup.” He paused, gathering his thoughts. “Problem is, Jesus did say what you said he did, and you’re right. So mad as I am–and I’m still mad!–I want you to be our pastor.”

It only took moments for the rest of the men to agree. After all, nobody argued with Gerald Adams. Jesus, maybe, but not Gerald.

* In a story dealing with theological issues, no character represents my own view. My short stories are intended to raise and discuss issues, not provide answers to theological questions.

**This story came to me while I was editing The Jesus Paradigm by David Alan Black, just released by my company, but Dr. Black is not to be blamed for my ideas or attitudes.

After the Fire, What?

The first time that Yagac approached the shrine he was carrying a stick he had cut from a tree and sharpened.

“What do you bring for the god?” said the aged priest. Villagers said he had been at the shrine more than a hundred years. He looked it.

“I bring this spear,” said Yagac, his young voice trembling.

The priest saw a thin, or better scrawny boy who might be in his teens, though he could be taken for younger. He knew the villagers had very little to eat.

“That? That’s a stick.”

“It’s a spear. My father says that the God accepts whatever is the best you can bring. You must let me offer it.”

The priest thought a moment. It was true that he had told the villagers the god would accept their best. He had meant “only their best” but perhaps this was the best the boy could offer. It wouldn’t do to give the villagers the idea of withholding things.

“Go in, offer it, and say your prayers.”

Inside Yagac laid his spear on the altar, then prayed. “You know that the lord in the castle takes what he wants. Now he has even taken my sister. I would like you to do something about it.”

He felt very peaceful and wanted to laugh–a joyful laugh. But he didn’t do either. He put on a sober look and walked from the shrine.

“Did you receive peace?” asked the priest.

“I wasn’t praying for peace,” said Yagac. Then he walked off toward the village.

The second time Yagac came to the shrine he was carrying a knife made of flint. It was very well formed, and had a wooden handle attached to it with some twine that looked hand woven.

This time the priest just waved him in. At the same time he got an idea. Why not benefit from the repeated returns of the boy?

Inside Yagac laid his knife on the altar, then prayed. “You know that the lord in the castle takes what he wants. Now he has even taken my sister. I would like you to do something about it.”

This time the peace and joy that came over him was nearly overwhelming. He was sure there was some divine presence in the shrine. But he wasn’t satisfied. He carefully straightened his face as he walked out past the priest.

The priest stopped him. “If you come again to offer a weapon, you must bring food with it. The guards from the castle will be suspicious if they see you bringing weapons as sacrifices. Traditionally they are sacrifices to give one courage and victory in battle.”

Yagac nodded and walked away toward the village.

The third time Yagac came to the shrine he was carrying a basket with some vegetables in it. Amongst the vegetables was a very respectable hammer made of a hard rock carefully attached to a wooden handle.

This time the priest decided to make use of provisions he had made to listen to the prayers of worshipers. He had ignored the boy because he figured he was praying for some childish thing and he had no interest.

Inside Yagac laid his basket on the altar, pulled the hammer out and put it beside the basket, then prayed. “You know that the lord in the castle takes what he wants. Now he has even taken my sister. I would like you to do something about it.”

This time the feeling of peace and joy truly was overwhelming. Yagac fell on the floor laughing hysterically. Then he got up, straightened the rags he wore for clothes, wiped any smile from his face, and left.

The priest intercepted him. “You have been touched by the god. I can see it on you. You should be satisfied with what has happened. His peace and joy have come upon you.”

“I wasn’t praying for peace and joy,” said Yagac.

A bit of fear came over the priest. He liked the way things were in the village and at the shrine. While the village produced little, something came to him from everyone, and then he received a monthly payment from the castle lord for help in keeping the villagers quiet.

It wasn’t that he didn’t believe in the god, though he had never seen anything that could definitely be crediting to his activity. The peace and joy? That was a secret ingredient in the incense.

“Be very careful what you pray for, child,” he said, trying for a fatherly expression and tone. “The gods always demand much of those they aid! Be happy with his peace, lest you find the price of an answer too high.”

He didn’t say this because he thought anything might happen. He just didn’t want word of a child with such a prayer getting back to the village. He considered reporting the child to the castle guards, but he decided there was no real threat. He’d just bring trouble on himself.

The final time Yagac went to the shrine he was running. He was carrying a short sword in its scabbard. He could barely carry it and run. The priest could hear the sound of horses’ hoofs further in the distance. He moved to block the boy, but he was old and slow, and the boy ran directly into the shrine.

Yagac slammed the sword down on the altar and said, “You know that the lord in the castle takes what he wants. Now he has even taken my sister. I would like you to do something about it.”

But this time he continued. “I don’t want peace. I don’t want joy. I want revenge. I want things changed. I don’t care what it costs.”

The guards were already outside the door, and the priest turned away so as not to see the boy killed. The priest didn’t really believe anything might happen.

Suddenly the ground shook. Something emerged from the temple, but it wasn’t anything that could be recognized as Yagac. As it took steps the ground shook. Fire surrounded it. The guards fled in terror.

Yagac felt no different. He was still just Yagac just a boy. But as he returned from the castle, riding into the village on a horse he had appropriated the villagers bowed down in the street, hailing him as a conquering hero.

He was no hero! He was Yagac, who could plow the straightest furrow. Yagac, who loved his family and missed his sister. He’d found her dead in the castle. It wasn’t fair! These people wanted food. They wanted protection.

Yagac spurred his horse and rode down the trail away from the village. But even as he did it he knew he would be returning. The god demanded it.

He was also Yagac the responsible, and he would pay the price.

3Our God comes
but he doesn’t keep silent.
Fire devours before him,
A furious windstorm surrounds him. — Psalm 50:3

(See my devotional on this verse.)