Note: This is the start of a new series, without the end of any others. I will expand on this in the series page. Briefly, I want to practice writing dialog, try various ways of presenting it, and also try presenting different views on various theological topics in a sympathetic way. Basically I’m practicing here, so read at your own risk. Of course, that’s not much different from anything else on this blog!
Also, all characters, places, events, and churches in this story are fictional. It is a work of fiction.
* * * * *
Mark wasn’t too sure why he pulled into the roadside cafe. He rarely ate out. As a seminary student on a partial scholarship but without church support he had to be careful with his money. But tonight he needed to get working on a three page paper, and he couldn’t think how he was going to do it.
It was Saturday night, the paper was due Monday morning. He felt silly as he thought about that. He was a veteran of countless all nighters in which he had produced 10, 15, or 20 pages in a night with no problem, complete with footnotes, formatted according to the professor’s requirements. Yet he had this feeling of dread.
“You will write three pages on what it means to you personally to be a Christian. No references, no quotations, not even Bible verses. Just three pages from you.”
There was a short time of silence in the class. For many of them, half or more of a paper could be made up of summing up other people’s views and providing references for them.
“But Dr. Youngman,” said one, “References to the great teachers of the past are important! I can’t imagine talking about Christianity without referencing some of the great thinkers in Christian history.”
“Well, you’re going to learn to imagine it. Just three pages.”
“Exactly?” asked another student.
“Make it between 2.9 and 3.1 pages. Edit it until you get it to the right length.”
“What if I’m not a Christian,” asked another student.
“Good question,” said the professor. “One assumes that most students at a seminary are Christians, but one may be wrong. If you are not a Christian, then write about what it means to you to say someone else is a Christian.”
“And if we’re not sure, not committed?”
“Write about why you’re not sure then, 3 pages, all your words.”
“I don’t think I can express myself in three pages. You’ve given us a broad subject.”
“Narrow it down.”
“But how? What is the most important thing for me to talk about?”
“That’s what you should be asking yourself.”
“What if I can’t think of three full pages?”
“Consider the impact of a zero for this assignment on your grade, and feel the motivation flowing over you.”
“Zero?” said a couple of voices. Then one student continued: “Won’t we get any credit for writing, say, 2 ½ pages?”
“No. Only between 2.9 and 3.1 pages will count. Full credit if you give me those pages and you made a serious effort to complete the assignment. No credit otherwise. Don’t push the limits. Your best choice is to end your essay on the last line of page 3, and make sure that each and every word adds something to the value of your paper.” He paused. “Oh, and I must tell you that I expect the result to be printed in the 12 point font and the margins specified for all my papers.”
Mark had felt attacked by every portion of the assignment. He was afraid he wouldn’t be able to write enough, but at the same time he was afraid that if he got going he wouldn’t be able to stop, and he found it nearly impossible to condense anything that he had written. What was more, he was the king of the historical survey. When assigned to write a paper on the meaning of a specific verse in the Bible he had spent ten pages surveying previous interpretation from the earliest of the church fathers to the present, another five pages discussing the impact of the context starting with the whole of the Bible and finally dealing with the paragraph, again all footnoted to the appropriate commentaries, with good journal articles thrown in to impress his professor. When he’d turned in the paper he hadn’t been certain he’d ever said what it meant. He had found out for sure when Dr. Youngman returned the paper with just one note in red, written on the title page: “But what does it mean?”
So here he was, turning into the parking lot of this cafe on a Saturday night, wondering just how he would manage to write three, and just three, pages.
The sign said “Roadside Cafe.” Creative, he thought. In the window was a hand lettered sign that appeared to have been written on a piece of a cardboard box. It said, “Internet Hot Spot.” Not “WiFi” or “Wireless,” just “Internet.” Another sign, just a little better looking said, “Students welcome!” Under that was another that said “Relax!”
He pulled the door open and entered. Outside this looked like the remains of a service station. There were only a few cars outside. Inside, however, it was dimly lit, with chairs, tables, cushions, and even a bean bag chair or two scattered about. Around the wall was a padded bench, which appeared to be used by folks who wanted to join conversations at the various tables. At least he could see a couple of people who seemed to be doing just that. He could also see that a number of folks his age had already settled in with their computers and their books. Apparently this was a popular homework spot.
He settled into a chair at an empty table near the wall. He opened his computer and watched it connect to the internet. That was satisfying. He hadn’t stinted on the computer he brought to seminary. But this time connecting to the internet wasn’t going to prove to be all that valuable. Three pages of his own words, what he thought. What did his faith mean to him?
He’d been baptized as an infant, confirmed on schedule. He’d gone to church all his life and had even stayed there through college. He was in the early stages of ministerial candidacy with his denomination, but he was not rushing things, and hadn’t really committed to ministry. He told himself that he could always use his theological training in counseling, management, teaching, or even law. The reality was that he wasn’t too sure what to do.
A waitress approached him. She was young and reasonably good looking, Mark noted without any real interest. Her name tag read “Ellen.”
“What can I get you?” she asked.
“Do I have to order something in order to stay here?”
“Actually, no, you don’t. You’re welcome to do whatever you want, as long as you don’t bring in outside food or drink.” She started to turn toward the next table.
“No, wait! I was just asking. How about the largest Coke you have?”
Mark had just enough time to get worked up again about his assignment before she returned. He took the drink, thanked her, sipped it for a moment or two, then wrote a sentence and promptly deleted it. “I’m a Christian because I love Jesus.” He had written.
He could hear the questions. What exactly do you mean? How do you know Jesus exists? What does it mean to love someone you can’t see? What kind of love would that be anyhow? Any statement he made could bring on a seminary lecture.
He sipped his coke for a few minutes and stared at the ceiling.
He was concentrating so hard he was surprised when he heard a man’s voice.
“May I join you?”
What Mark saw was a middle aged man, tall and substantial—not fat, but definitely not thin. His black hair was sprinkled with gray. Mark guessed that “tall” meant just under six feet.
“Well, yes,” Mark said, “But I may not be very good company.” He was a bit wary, and surprised that an older gentleman was spending his time in this college hangout. Was he a professor?
“I don’t mind. You’ve been staring at the ceiling for several minutes, and I thought you might want someone to talk to.”
“Well, I have a paper to write.”
“What’s it about?”
“It’s for Theology 101 up at the seminary, Dr. Youngman.”
“Oh yes, I know of him,” said the older gentleman. “I’m Jerry Simonson.” He held out his hand.
“Mark Morton. You don’t sound enthusiastic.”
“That obvious? I like to keep my faith simple. From what I’ve heard Youngman likes to make things complex. He makes the seminary students question much more than they would otherwise.”
“Isn’t it good to be questioning?”
“Questions are OK, but I think a professor should help answer them, not create more. But I didn’t really want to take you away from your paper. What’s it about?”
“I’m supposed to explain why I’m a Christian in exactly three pages. He even specified 12 point font. I don’t know how to make it that short, and to be honest I’m not even sure how to answer the question in the first place.”
“Has this professor told you why you should be a Christian?”
“Well, no. It’s only the first week of class. Though I had Introduction to Biblical Studies with him last semester, and I don’t think he told me then either.”
“I think he should give you his own testimony before he asks you that question. It doesn’t seem right to ask you to write something like that without teaching it first.”
“Perhaps he would like the students to think about it for themselves.” It was a woman’s voice. Mark had seen her slide down the bench that was along the wall, moving close enough to hear their conversation. She was dressed in shorts, a T-Shirt and sandals, and was sitting on the bench cross-legged. Mark had guessed she must be in her twenties until he looked at her face, which seemed older to him somehow.
Jerry looked a bit stunned at the interruption and none too happy. Mark was glad for it. As much as he enjoyed having someone sympathize with his dislike for the assignment, it wasn’t helping him get done what he needed to do.
“Are you a Christian?” asked Jerry.
“Yes,” she said. “Mandy Kelly,” she said, holding her hand out to Mark.
Jerry looked as though he was expecting her to say something more, but she didn’t. There was a moment of awkward silence.
“Well, how would you answer my question?” asked Mark.
“I would say that Jesus has been real to me for as long as I can remember, that I talk to him frequently, and that I can’t imagine being anything else. The label isn’t that important. Jesus is.”
“But is Jesus your Lord and Savior?” asked Jerry, looking at Mandy.
“I guess you could put it that way if you wanted to,” she replied.
He looked dissatisfied, like he was about to say something more, but Mark interrupted. “So Jerry, how would you answer the question?”
“I would stick strictly with the Bible. I am a sinner. Jesus died to take the penalty that I deserved for my sins. Because of his sacrifice, I will not be punished, but will have eternal life.”
“But how do you know that?” asked Mark. “My problem is not with being able to repeat the doctrines. The question is why?”
“I’m convinced because the Bible said it. Jesus died for my sins and was raised on the third day. That’s enough for me.”
“But why do you believe what the Bible says?” It was a new voice. They looked up to see a woman in her thirties, wearing jeans and a t-shirt. It was casual, but Mark got the impression that they were very expensive and classy casual clothes.
Jerry opened his mouth, but before he could speak, the newcomer held out her hand and said, “McKenzie Strong, call me Mac.”
“Jerry Simonson,” he said, looking uncomfortable. “Pleased to meet you.”
“You don’t look at all pleased,” she said.
Jerry opened his mouth and closed it several times. Before he found his voice, Mac spoke again. “I know I’m rude, but this is one place where I can be real. I come here on Friday nights to catch some good philosophical or theological debate. It never fails. Most people like it.”
“I’m not really a debater,” said Jerry, “I just witness to my faith.”
“But aren’t you willing to answer questions?” asked Mac.
“You don’t look comfortable.” She paused. “Let me clue you in to something. I’ve seen many of your type come through here. They come to witness to the college students, but they just want to tell people what to believe. It won’t work.”
“But if he’s a conservative Christian, he may feel that’s what he has to do,” said Mandy.
“No, no,” said Jerry. “Don’t defend me. This lady”–he nodded toward Mac–”has just given me a very good suggestion. I do believe Jesus told me to witness, but I can answer questions.”
“OK, so back to my question,” said Mac. “Why do you believe what the Bible says.”
“I believe the Bible is true, and records God’s will for us. I have examined it carefully, and it has stood all the tests.”
“So you believe the Bible is inerrant?” asked Mac.
“Oh lord!” broke in Mandy. “Not an argument about Biblical inerrancy! They never end!”
“Well, yes I do, but I agree with Mandy. We’ll never discuss Mark’s original question if we go there.”
Mac looked disappointed. “Well, I hope you’ll be here some other time. I want to have a good knock down drag out debate on Biblical inerrancy.”
“I’ll be here,” said Jerry.
Mark wanted to bring the subject back to his essay. He was getting some ideas about what to write. “But I’d still like to know why each of you is a Christian,” he said, turning from one to the next.
“Well,” said Jerry, “I can’t leave inerrancy out of it. That’s just a fancy way of saying that the Bible is all true. I believe that the Bible is true. The Bible says that Jesus died for my sins and that the only way to be saved is to believe in him, and I do.”
Mark turned to Mandy. “I stick with my original statement. Jesus is real because I talked to him today. Whether you call me a Christian or not isn’t important.”
Mark looked at Mac. “And you?”
“I’m not a Christian.”
“But why? Or is it just that you happen not to be?”
“No, I was raised in a Christian home, a strict Christian home. But I never could believe it, mostly because the people around me were so disgusting. I can’t love a god who allows the kind of evil that there is in the world.”
For a moment, Mark considered asking what the connection was between “evil in the world” and Mac’s childhood, but then he decided he wasn’t sure he wanted to go there. “So I take it you don’t believe the Bible is true, and obviously you don’t talk to Jesus like Mandy does?”
“Got it in one.” Mac’s grin was open and friendly.
Their conversation was attracting attention, and several more people had pulled their chairs up. Mark looked around wondering just what was happening.
Jerry noticed his look. “That’s the nature of the Roadside Cafe,” he said. “Nothing the folks here like better than to tell or hear some new thing. Just like the Athenians.”
Before Mark could ask what this all had to do with Athenians, someone else spoke.
“I have to agree with this lady,” said a kindly looking middle aged lady. “I know that Jesus is real because I talk to him every day. He’s given me the guarantee of his Spirit. But I also know that the Bible is true.” As she said the last she looked at Jerry.
“Hi,” said Mark. “I’m Mark Morton.”
“I’m Rev. Justine Reeder, but you can call me Justine. I’m at the seminary completing my Master of Divinity.”
At the word “Reverend,” Jerry’s face froze. “Reverend?” he said?
“Yes indeed! I was called by God and ordained at the age of 15. I’ve been catching up on my education ever since.”
“In my church, we require the education first,” said Jerry.
“What church is that?”
“And what do you do there?”
“I’m a Sunday School teacher and an elder.”
“Pleased to meet you!” She held out her hand. Jerry shook it looking quite wary. Justine didn’t seem to notice.
“So you are a Christian because of the Bible, the Holy Spirit, and because you talk to Jesus yourself,” said Mark, trying to get this conversation back to his paper. He was gathering helpful things, but the conversation had a terrible tendency to head off in various directions.
“Yes,” said Justine, “though I wouldn’t put it quite that way. Jesus found me, saved me, then baptized me in his Holy Spirit, and now I have his joy in my heart. Hallelujah!” She looked intense, and the way she talked seemed out of place in the cafe, but at the same time it seemed just right on her.
“Hallelujah?” said Mac. “You’ve got to be kidding.” Her tone was so contemptuous that Mark thought Justine was sure to be offended. But she didn’t appear to notice the tone.
“Yes, hallelujah!” she said evenly.
“Well,” said Mark. I have a great deal to work with, and I have to go. I think I’ll need to be somewhere else to do the actual writing.”
“It was nice meeting you,” said Jerry. “Do you think you’ll be back?”
“Oh yes. In my head I’ve composed my complete paper just listening to you.”
“I have an idea,” said Mandy.
“Yes?” said Mark.
“Why don’t we meet here every Friday night. Friday night is when I go out to relax. My husband keeps the kids, and I have an evening to myself. I don’t drink, and I just wish I could find a place to have a good discussion, talking to adults. We didn’t get in very deep today, but we found plenty of topics we could discuss.” Mandy looked earnest and excited.
“I’m up for it,” said Mark, “as long as you don’t mind my using you as guinea pigs for my seminary papers.”
“I’d love it, and I have seminary papers as well,” said Justine.
“Can we invite others?” said Mac.
“I don’t think there are really rules. We’ll just come together and see what happens,” said Jerry.
“I doubt you could enforce rules anyhow,” said Mandy, laughing.
“Then it’s a date,” said Mark. “Next Friday night. I’d usually make it here somewhere between six and seven.”
“And you’ll be here too, Jerry?” asked Mac. “I want to pin you down on some issues.”
“I’m looking forward to it,” said Jerry. He looked like he did, too.
“We need a name,” said Mandy.
“Why?” asked Jerry.
“Oh, it just seems more focused to have a group name.”
“How about ‘The God-Talk Club’?” asked Mac. She was being a bit facetious.
“That would work,” said Mandy. Jerry looked less excited about it, but Mark nodded as well.
And thus the God-Talk Club was born.