[This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance between the characters and real people or the places and real places is strictly accidental. What’s more, this is practice fiction, wherein I practice writing dialogue, so any resemblance to real fiction is accidental as well. This is the second of the series. I introduced the God-Talk Club here, and provide some additional information on the current characters here. Comments, including criticism, are welcome.]
Mark settled into his normal seat at the Roadside Cafe a little later than usual. “His” seat was still not taken, but he noticed that none of the others were there. Before he had even thought about ordering, he saw Ellen, who had been here every time he had, bringing his normal large Coke.
“What would you do if I told you I didn’t want a large Coke,” he asked, smiling.
Ellen’s face fell for just a moment, then she realized he was joking. She paused for a second as she put the drink down and gave Mark his straw. “I’d probably get fired,” she said.
It was Mark’s turn to be speechless. “Surely the wouldn’t fire you for a thing like that!”
“No, not really.” Ellen giggled. “But it was good to see the look on your face.”
Mark laughed. “OK. Got me!”
“What do you guys do here anyhow?”
“We plot the downfall of civilization,” said someone from behind Ellen. It was Mac.
Mark looked up at her. McKenzie “Mac” Strong was celebrating warmer weather with a halter top. He suspected she mostly wanted to offend Jerry Simonson, who had commented on female modesty during their discussion the previous Friday night. He thought the comment had been directed at Mandy Kelly, a stay-at-home Mom in her 40s with four children, but Mac had taken it to heart. She enjoyed teasing the conservative elder and Sunday School teacher.
“How did you make it through the tornadoes?” asked Mac, looking at Ellen. There was a moment of silence.
“Oh, you mean me?” Ellen was taken by surprise.
“Yes, you. Not that strange looking guy by the other wall who is the only other guy in your direction.”
Ellen flushed a bit, glad to be included in the social talk, but also angered by Mac’s sarcasm. “One came very close, but other than a little garbage tossed around the yard, our home is OK.”
Being a waitress at the Roadside Cafe required balance. The owner didn’t like the waitresses getting tied up with the customers too much, but he liked them to spend enough time to build relationships that helped bring people back. You knew you had the balance for that moment because he didn’t fire you.
“You?” Mac said, turning to Mark.
“My home is OK, but my church is badly damaged. God sure had his hand on everything there, otherwise we would have lost everything. As it was, nobody was injured, and we can repair it!” Everyone looked at he new speaker. Rev. Justine Reeder certainly fulfilled Jerry’s requirements for modesty. In fact, she looked like a business executive, pretty close to perfect.
“A little careless of God, wasn’t it?”
“I’ll just let that slide, Mac, because I know you are an unbeliever. God will forgive you in your ignorance.”
“OK, let God forgive Mac, but I want to know why God would let your building be damaged so severely, and yet you think he protected you. If God was watching over you, why wouldn’t he protect you completely?” Mark thought this an excellent theological question, mostly because he knew everyone would squirm, and he would get personal notes to sprinkle into seminary papers and practice sermons.
“The Bible tells us that God’s ways are past finding out.”
“But,” said Mac, “You are quite willing to think you’ve ‘found out’ his ways when you say he protected part of your church. Why are they suddenly so ‘past finding out’ when he lets part of it be destroyed? A neutral observer, such as me”–she put her thumb on her chest and struck an “I’m important” pose– “would think God should do a better job.”
“Who are you to question God?” Jerry Simonson had put in his appearance, and his question stopped everyone for a moment.
“Who am I? I’m Mac Strong, and I think someone who serves God like Justine does should have her church protected completely. Otherwise God is just plain cruel or careless. God knows where I am and if he wants to shut me up he can do it any time.” She looked up at the ceiling. “God, this is Mac Strong! I think you blew it when you let Justine’s church get damaged.”
Justine and Jerry looked scandalized. A gentle voice cut into the conversation. “Trying to get your daddy to smack you again, are you?” Mandy had put in her appearance.
“That let’s God off the hook. He doesn’t have to do anything at all. And you’ll have an explanation for anything he does.” Mac wasn’t happy. Mandy didn’t quite fit into her categories.
“I don’t have an explanation of much of anything,” she said. “But I asked God this morning just why he let some places be destroyed and others didn’t even get touched.”
“What did he say?” It was Mac’s voice in a sarcastic tone, but everyone else was looking straight at Mandy.
“He said, ‘I love you. That’s how tornadoes work.’”
“Are you trying to tell me it’s all just random and meaningless?” asked Jerry.
“What type of meaning do you think it has?” Mandy’s question annoyed Jerry. She talked casually of speaking with God in her kitchen. She dressed like one of her children. If she had been one of his daughters he’d send her to her room for her unladylike behavior and tell her to dress in proper clothes. Yet she would ask the questions that tripped him up in front of people whose respect he wanted.
“Meaning!” he exploded. “Purpose. A reason. Value.”
“You didn’t really answer my question.” Mandy was now looking at him just a bit like a child whose parent has avoided the tough parts. No, thought Jerry, not like a child. Like a mother who’s pointing out to the child that he avoided her question. And I’m old enough to be her father.
“I mean that if God allowed part of Justine’s church to be destroyed, he had a purpose in it. He is trying to accomplish something. If I were in her shoes I’d be examining my life very carefully to make sure I was obeying God’s will as written in scripture.”
Justine’s mouth opened, but Mandy cut in first. “So you think it’s a punishment? Maybe she’s being punished because she’s a woman pastor? Maybe the church is being punished because they called a woman as pastor?” All of them knew Jerry felt very strongly that women should not be ordained or teach and preach in a church.
“I think you ought to consider such things when something bad happens. God is not to be trifled with!”
“OK, so what about the Mormon church or the Unitarian-Universalists? As far as I know, their buildings weren’t damaged at all. Just Justine’s church. Is her church more wicked than they are?”
“You can never tell,” said Jerry. “Perhaps it’s God’s mercy because he thinks Justine will listen, but he knows those cultists are beyond help. Nothing will persuade them!”
Ellen was just giving Jerry a drink, and she dropped it the last inch. The lid came off and a little bit splashed on the table. She rushed to wipe it up. “I’m so sorry! I’ll be more careful!”
“What startled you just then?” asked Mac.
“It was nothing,” muttered Ellen.
“Oh no you don’t,” said Mac. “If you avoid me I’m not giving you a tip!”
She was trying so hard to look ferocious that Ellen giggled. “OK, I’m one of those cultists. I go to the Mormon church. But I don’t want to say anything bad about one of the customers, and I’m sorry I spilled your drink, Jerry.”
“That’s OK. I didn’t know you were Mormon.”
“It’s a rude thing to say about people in any case,” said Mac.
“If people are believing lies, I have to point them out.”
“Could we get back to the subject?” asked Mark. “I’d like to know what Jerry thinks the destruction meant.” Ellen was forgotten for the moment. It’s easy to ignore the waitress.
“Well, I don’t actually know. But I’m confident that God has a purpose in whatever was done, and we would do well to look for that purpose.”
Mac was shaking her head. “You believers are weird,” she said. “Justine.”
“Tell me something.”
“Whatever you want, honey!”
“If your church had been flattened, what would you say? Would you still say that God’s hand was on it?”
“In it. I’d say his hand was in it, and start looking for the better church building he had for me, or the lessons he wanted me to learn. ‘Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him!’”
“So in a way it doesn’t really matter what happened to the church. Whatever happened, you’re going to say it was all for the best, God did it, and that’s OK.” It was Mark. He sounded a bit puzzled.
There was a pause, and then Mark continued. “And you, Jerry. You can explain a destroyed church building as God’s judgment or something he wanted to teach, while one that’s preserved might be God’s mercy on sinners, or a reward for faithfulness.”
“Yes, absolutely. It’s possible for it to be any of those things. I don’t have to know, because I trust God.”
“And you,” said Mark, turning to Mandy. “You think the tornadoes just hit things randomly, and God has nothing to do with it?”
“No, Mark. The cause may be very complex, but the tornadoes form under particular conditions in particular places and they follow the laws of physics as they travel. I wouldn’t call it random. You could move to Alaska and avoid them. And nothing happens without God.” There was an “Amen” from Justine. “God made the laws of the universe and keeps them in place. The tornadoes are pretty obedient. They just follow the law.” This was a long speech for Mandy.
“You know what I mean!”
“Maybe I do and maybe I don’t. Why do things that just happen have to have a particular meaning? A tornado hits Justine’s church and she praises God. It doesn’t hit a whole bunch of other churches, and they praise God. The meaning is in what you do about it afterward. The tornado that hit Justine’s church will have meaning because Justine and her congregation will do good things about it.”
Jerry broke in. “But it seems to me you’re just leaving God out of it. He just keeps the laws of physics working.”
“I kind of like it when they keep working.” Mandy gave Jerry that “expounding the obvious to the slow” look that he so disliked. He imagined she got on her children’s nerves from time to time with looks like that.
“I like to think of God making the choices. Even if I don’t understand why, it feels safer.”
“So if God chose to guide a tornado over to Justine’s church and take off a piece of the roof?”
“That’s his right!”
“I’m just praising the Lord that was all he took,” Justine broke in.
“You’re all crazy!” exclaimed Mac. “Well, except for Mandy. She’s pretty harmless, though I don’t know what good her God is.”
“Just try getting along without gravity,” said Mandy.
“Gravity doesn’t need God.”
Mandy just smiled.
“So what exactly does Christianity teach about this? You all seem to have a different view.” Mac looked puzzled.
“True Christianity teaches that God is in charge of everything, and guides everything according to his sovereign will.” Jerry said this with conviction.
“Amen,” said Justine.
“Justine, how do you do it?” asked Mac. “You ‘amen’ Mandy when she’s saying the opposite of what Jerry says, and now you’re ‘amening’ Jerry. And Jerry doesn’t even think you should be a pastor.”
“What does that have to do with me? He’s not even a member of my church!”
Mac shook her head. “I don’t know about you people.”
“Jerry,” said Mark. “What did you mean about true Christianity. How many people here are ‘true’ Christians according to you?”
“I don’t think it would be polite to say.”
“Oh come on,” said Mac. “Have the courage of your bigotry.”
“Give him a break, Mac. He has strong convictions, but he’s trying to be polite.”
Mac’s face reddened just a bit. Then she controlled her temper. “I’ll let him by with being a polite bigot.” She could tell that Mandy didn’t approve. She wondered if Mandy realized how much she communicated with a look, and how impolite some of it was.
Jerry, on the other hand, had a controlled look on his face, like he was vigorously holding his temper. He was, in fact, saying to himself “Father, forgive her, for she knows not what she is doing.” He felt very put upon at that moment. But for the sake of his opportunities to witness, he knew he would be back, and would put up with this crowd.
“Well,” said Mac. “I’ve got to go. You folks have fun talking about me, OK?”
That started the breakup of the little group. But they all knew they’d be back for however short a time next Friday night.