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

 

 

The Atheist and the Missionary

“The grandfather’s in there,” said the nurse quietly. “He’s a retired missionary.”

“Thanks,” said the pediatric oncologist, but he didn’t hesitate. He stepped into the room.

In the bed he saw the girl, not yet in her teens. She didn’t look all that good. He hadn’t expected her to. She had just been referred to him. Rising from the chair was an elderly man, thin, with graying black hair. He was dressed neatly, but not stylishly, in clothing that looked inexpensive and chosen for practical reasons.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance between the characters and anything in real life is purely coincidental. Copyright © 2015
Henry E. Neufeld

“Hello!” he said, addressing the girl, and not quite ignoring the man. His tone was crisp and competent.

“Hello, doctor,” said the girl.

From there it was all symptoms, treatments, results, even expectations. She was a good patient, brave, hopeful, but not unrealistic. Aware of her treatment. Her grandfather hadn’t answered any of the questions. He just stood there. If the doctor glanced his way after a question, he’d give a quick nod of confirmation, but nothing more.

Then he outlined what would come next for both of them, still addressing the girl, but watching the grandfather out of the corner of his eye. He was wondering why it was the grandfather who was here and not the parents, especially considering how little the man was contributing to the conversation. By now most parents would have been grilling him about many things, relevant and irrelevant.

“Is your grandfather the one who usually comes with you to appointments?” he asked. Family dynamics could be as important as medical details in these cases. The course of cancer treatment was so unpredictable. He knew a lot, and was proud of that knowledge, but he also knew the limits.

“Not always,” she said, bestowing a smile on her grandfather. “Just to the really important ones.”

“And why is that? I take it he’s special.” He smiled.

So did she. “Yes, he’s special,” she said, “but he’s also a doctor. He knows what to say and what not to say. Mom and Dad get stressed.”

When he heard the word “doctor,” the oncologist tensed. He wished he had known that. Now he put “missionary” and “doctor” together, and the sum of the two made him stressed. As he used the girl’s word “stressed” on himself, he had to suppress a smile.

“So do you have anything you want to add? Does the plan sound good to you?” he asked, turning to the grandfather.

“You’re the expert. We’re in your hands.”

“Most doctors would have a hard time staying out of it like you are.”

“That’s why I’m here. My son and daughter-in-law think that I give the doctors great ideas when I come with her. I just know how little I’d like to have someone interfere with my work. So, as I said, we’re in your hands.”

“Not in the hands of God?” He hated himself the moment it came out. He never discussed religion with his patients or their parents. Never! But the words couldn’t be called back.

“Yes. God’s hands too.”

“So I take it you’ll be praying.”

“Yes, absolutely.”

“And if your daughter lives, God gets the credit.” This was not going the way he intended. Words were coming out of his mouth that he would never say. It wasn’t professional, and he exemplified the word “professional.”

“God doesn’t really need a lot of credit,” said the missionary. Missionary doctor, thought the oncologist.

“But if the treatment fails, the doctors get the blame.”

There was a moment’s pause. The two men looked at one another. There could have been tension flashing between them, but the missionary was too relaxed for that.

“Yes,” said the grandfather, “all too often a doctor is blamed for something quite outside of her control. I know that very well. But God is there just as much no matter what the outcome.”

“I see. Well, I’m an atheist,” said the oncologist. It was another of those things he never said in a patient’s room. He wondered if he was going to be able to walk this back.

“I know.”

“You know?”

“I’m a grandfather,” said the missionary. “That’s my favorite granddaughter in that bed.”

“Grandpa!” interrupted the girl. “You say that to all of us!”

“Believe me, I know,” the grandfather resumed. “I read every one of your papers, every case study I could find. I know how you work. I made the choice to come here as opposed to more famous facilities because I think you know what we’re fighting. You know this disease. You know the fear. You know how to fight them. I won’t interfere with you, but don’t ever imagine I didn’t use every facility available to me to make sure you were the right person to treat my granddaughter. Your hands, if you’ll pardon the expression, are God’s hands in this case. At least to me.”

“But you know I don’t believe. You know what I’ve said about Christians, especially missionaries.”

“Yes, I do.” The missionary remained calm, unruffled.

The oncologist paused, then chuckled. “You know I’ve gone way past the bounds of propriety in this conversation.”

“I seem to have that effect on people.”

“So that’s it.” Now he allowed himself a genuine smile. “I thought you’d say it was God again.”

“I don’t always know the difference.”

“But how do you relate prayer and medicine? Surely if you’ve read my papers, you know I’m strictly scientific about it all. Wouldn’t you want God to lead you to the right oncologist, I mean, if you do believe God does that sort of thing?”

“I do believe God does that sort of thing. In fact, I believe God did that sort of thing. I asked God for wisdom, and God said, ‘Go find the very best pediatric oncologist you can, not the most famous, but the best.’ I did what God said. I confess I was going to do that anyhow, but it was nice to have God’s word on it as well.”

“And now I’m wondering if, after having this conversation, I’m actually the best. You and I know we shouldn’t be doing this, especially not in front of your granddaughter. I apologize.”

“Don’t apologize,” said the missionary. On the bed, the girl shook her head, negating any apology. “You’re a better man than you think you are. Do you think we could have gone through the sorts of things all three of us know we’re going to without the fact that I’m a Christian missionary doctor coming between us? I’ll refer you to your article in …”

“Yes, I know the one,” the oncologist interrupted.

“You see, we could have spent days and weeks trying to work around this. If you hadn’t brought it up, I would have. I know about the lawsuit. I read the public papers from the court. It’s unfortunate that such a thing happened. Somebody did blame you for the results when they should have been talking to God. We needed to clear the air.”

“So you knew about the lawsuit too,” the oncologist said, turning to the girl.

“Yes. I read the whole thing too. I’m really quite smart.”

Both men laughed.

“So when do you try to convert me?” asked the oncologist, a grin taking the sting out of the comment.

“I’m not going to. Thirty years as a missionary and I never converted anyone that I know of.”

“Really? The folks who sued me invited me to church several times and wanted me to pray with them.”

“You’re always welcome at my church if you want to visit, but I certainly don’t want you to do anything you don’t believe is the right thing. One of the things I like about you is your integrity.”

“Integrity? I believe I have integrity, but I never expected to be told that by a Christian. ‘The fool has said in his heart’ and all that.”

“Well, I’m guessing there are some atheist fools and there are some atheists who aren’t. There are some Christian fools and some Christians who aren’t. If we were practicing medicine together, our only disagreements would be scientific. I know that you’d never do less than your best because some shortcut was easier. That’s all I need to know.”

“So in your Christianity is there room for miracles? You seem to be all about the science.”

“I am all about the science. The science is a miracle. I live in a miracle. Everything is miracle. Everything is natural. I see no point in dividing them up. When I pray, I take not one moment from medical science that I would otherwise spend.”

“You really aren’t doing very well convincing me that there’s a God, you know.”

“I’m glad to hear that. I wasn’t trying to convince you.”

“You’re a very strange missionary.”

“Actually I think I’m rather ordinary. I could say you’re a very strange atheist. But I think instead that there are plenty of atheists who, like you, could be God’s hands. Speaking from my perspective, not yours, of course!” The missionary smiled again.

“That,” said the oncologist, “I can live with!”

 

 

It Got Very Quiet up in the Mountains

It got very quiet up in the mountains.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How can one hear capital letters? he thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How do you know all those things?”

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

“I didn’t say that!”

“You were thinking it.”

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

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

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

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

“That sounds dangerous.”

“Actually living is dangerous.”

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

“What do you think you’re doing?”

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

“My church,” said the voice.

“Yes, my church.”

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

“I’m trying to pray here,” he said.

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

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

“What do you think?”

“I think I’m crazy.”

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

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

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

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

“In God?”

“Of course, in God.”

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

There was silence for several minutes.

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

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

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

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

“The pastor preached it, you ignored it.”

“What was I supposed to do about it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You wanted a church fight?”

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

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

“And did the funds ever come in?”

“No.”

“So you killed that one too.”

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

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

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

“People respected him, loved him.”

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

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

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

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

“Isn’t it your blessing or curse?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was another pause.

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

“But he’s a troublemaker.”

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

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

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

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

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

“So right and wrong doesn’t matter?”

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

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

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

It got very quite up in the mountains.

Can We Trust Him?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The woodsman thrust his arm toward the chief again.


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

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

You Give Them Something to Eat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where do you go to church?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is anyone with me?”

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

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

“My mom works for …”

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

One of Miriam’s friends started taking notes.

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

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

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

Lost and Found, Found and Lost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

Condemned by the Gracious Governor

The storyteller, as usual, seemed to start in the middle of the tale …


When Perd fell on his face in front of the governor, he had little hope. It was his second time to appear in this position, and what hope did he have of getting clemency? He had promised to reform, to learn a skill, and to get a job, but he had done none of those things. It had seemed much easier to steal. What’s more, he thought he had learned a lesson the last time. No, not the lesson he was supposed to learn. He thought he knew how not to get caught.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance between persons, places, things, or events and those in the real world is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2012
Henry E. Neufeld

Now he found himself sentenced to death for a large robbery in which he had seriously injured a man with his knife. And here he was again, on his face, in front of the governor.

The governor was known as a gracious man. In fact, he was not required to see every person who was sentenced to death before allowing the sentence to be carried out. He could just sign the death warrants, or even allow a secretary to do it for him. But he disliked seeing people beheaded, and he sought every way to prevent it, especially for people who had been sentenced for something other than murder. The law might allow the sentence for someone who had merely threatened the life of another, or done injury that might have led to death, but the governor didn’t like it.

The governor remembered Perd.

“Your honor commuted a previous sentence of death against this man,” droned the pardons secretary. He continued with the particulars.

When the pardons secretary had finished, the prosecutor spoke. “The defendant Perd has despised your honor’s grace given to him before. He has proven himself unworthy of your mercy. He is a threat to the province which you govern by the king’s leave.” The prosecutor mentioned the king, because he hoped that the governor would be afraid. The prosecutor was known to have connections in the distant capital. It would be impolitic to mention those connections directly, but they crept out through the pauses in the prosecutor’s speech.

The governor motioned to the pardons secretary who turned to Perd and asked in a low tone of voice, “Do you have anything to say for yourself?” He used a low tone of voice because he couldn’t see any reason why anyone should listen to someone with Perd’s record.

From his position with his face on the paving stones, Perd just said, “Mercy, your honor, mercy!” Then he was silent.

The prosecutor smiled. The pardons secretary didn’t smile (he didn’t really know how), but he managed to look satisfied. No sad story to touch the gracious governor’s heart and produce a pardon or even a commutation.

“You beg for mercy,” said the governor, “and mercy you shall have.” Shock swept through the audience chamber. The prosecutor opened his mouth to protest, but then he saw the determined look on the governor’s face.  Connections in the capital were all well and good, but the capital was two weeks journey to the south, and the governor was right here. The prosecutor decided it would be better to be silent. He could include a note in his next letter to friends and family, perhaps starting a rumor that would weaken the governor’s position with his superiors.

“I place before you a choice,” the governor continued, allowing this idea to sink in. “Out in the courtyard there is a headsman, with his axe sharpened. He is quite a good headsman, and will doubtless remove your head efficiently and with minimum pain. Considering that you could be executed by less pleasant methods, you should consider this a good option. On the other hand, I have a friend who is travelling north into the wilderness to search for gold and precious stones. He will probably be travelling for two or more years. He is a skilled man, and I doubt you will escape him. If you should think of escape, or of doing him harm, you should be aware that I give him my blanket permission to kill you, with no questions asked. If you are more of a burden on him than a help, then he can kill you just for that. Should you return from this trip alive, you will be granted my pardon and your freedom.”

The prosecutor had lost his smile when the governor first mentioned mercy, but now he had it back. The look on the pardons secretary’s face had gone from a carefully practiced strict neutrality to one of satisfaction. Perd did not look like the sort of person who could survive one of those trips to the north. The governor was clearly being extraordinarily cruel by providing this choice between two deaths.

The governor looked at Perd, who was too frightened to look up. The mountains immediately to the north were known to be a good source of many precious things, but they were also known to be a place of incredible danger. The explorers and miners who travelled in that area were known to be the toughest and nastiest people anywhere. He could very easily endure months or even years of agony, and still be killed, or die accidentally, before he could return home. A clean beheading almost sounded attractive!

Almost! But not quite. The alternative sentence did keep him alive, and offered some hope, however little. Perd thought, was better than none.

“Your honor, I will go with your friend,” said Perd. He almost thanked the governor for his mercy, but under the circumstances he thought that wouldn’t sound sincere. Nobody could expect him to be thankful for a slow death instead of a fast one.

He was taken in chains to the explorer, name Ka’at. He was left in chains in an unfurnished room overnight. The next morning Ka’at dragged him out into the courtyard where he saw two fully packed mules. Ka’at was in his travelling gear as well. He wondered if he would make the entire journey in chains. Before they went out of the city gates, however, Ka’at took him to a blacksmith’s shop, where the chains were removed, but replaced by a set that would handicap his movement less, but nonetheless make him much slower than Ka’at. The latter looked very fit and quick as well.

So Perd began his march into the mountains still in chains, albeit lighter ones. He was still expected to work and carry a pack. He wanted to be angry because of the pack, but as he started to open his mouth to complain, he realized that the pack Ka’at was carrying himself was substantially larger than his, and heavier even if one considered the weight of the chains. So he thought better of that complaint.

He knew that those who mined gemstones up in these mountains, and often searched for treasure from ancient times, were considered dangerous and uncouth. Ka’at, on the other hand, hardly said a word during the day. In the evening, he would make comments on what Perd had done during the day, and what he should do. He’d always end his comments by saying something like, “You’ve been more of a help than a burden today,” or “You’ve been more of a burden than a help, but I’ll let it pass,” or sometimes “You’ve been about as much trouble as help.”

Since he thought his life depended on it, Perd paid attention, and tried to do the things that made him more of a help than a burden. These things involved habits he had never learned before, such as learning how to cook a meal rather than expecting someone else to do so for him, how to mend and sew, how to care for the mules, and eventually how to hunt. By the time Ka’at gave him a hunting bow, he was so far into the mountains and so uncertain of how one would get home, that the thought of killing his master never occurred to him.

Then came the day when Ka’at removed the chains. He didn’t lecture about it. He just called Perd over, and with a few quick strokes of hammer and chisel, removed the chains. Again, partly because he had no idea where to go, and partly because he was now in the habit of doing the day to day chores, Perd didn’t think seriously of running. When he thought about his situation, he was amazed that he didn’t hate Ka’at. He’d assumed he would hate someone who had the power of life and death over him. Despite his pleas for mercy, deep inside himself he had hated the governor as well. Who was he to have Perd’s life in his hands?

But Ka’at worked hard than Perd could ever manage, even though Perd was finding himself stronger and stronger. He was doing work that only weeks before he had no idea how to do. Now it came easily. And they were finding gems as well. It took a lot of digging, but as the bags on the mules became lighter and lighter as they used up their supplies, they were being filled again with valuable items. Looking at a Ruby that he and Ka’at had just dug up, Perd suddenly realized why such stones commanded such high prices. He knew there was nowhere inside his homeland where one could find them. The trip would pay well, but there were few people who could survive this. He knew that without Ka’at’s knowledge, particularly of the wild animals, they would both have been dead.

Then it happened. It could happen to anyone, no matter how skilled. It had happened to Perd earlier in the trip, and Ka’at had been there to save him. But this time, it was Ka’at who stepped on the wrong stone, which broke off, and in turn loosened others, resulting in a fall. Ka’at ended up hanging over a gorge from a single small tree. He was in Perd’s power.

Instantly, the thought came to Perd’s mind. If he just let Ka’at go, he would be free. He need never return home to where he was known. He could find another place to live. But he rejected the thought instantly. It wasn’t until Ka’at was back on the trail that Perd realized that it hadn’t been his need of a guide to get home that stopped him from just letting Ka’at die. No, he’d suddenly realized that he liked the older man and didn’t want to see him fall. Yes, he’d realized how his sentence could end with Ka’at’s death, but he’d rejected it. It was an odd feeling. He couldn’t recall doing anything for anyone before just because he liked them.

Ka’at, as usual, was quiet. He just nodded his thanks. That evening he said simply, “You were a great help to me today.” Was that a twinkle in his eyes? With Ka’at, who could tell?

The day came when Ka’at and Perd rode back into town. They looked much the worse for wear. To Perd’s surprise, Ka’at led them straight to the palace. To Perd’s even greater surprise, they were admitted to the governor’s private audience chamber. Ka’at walked up to the governor’s desk and spread out the rubies they had found. They had a few other things, but that was more than 90% of the value of what they had brought out of the mountains.

“They’re all there,” said Ka’at, spreading the rubies out on the desk. He divided them up, two thirds in one pile and another third in another.

He looked at Perd and pointed to the smaller pile. “Take them,” he said. Perd knew from their discussions in the mountains that an assistant such as himself, always supposing the man was free and not condemned to work for nothing, would normally get five or ten percent of the take they had helped find. This was a junior partner’s share.

Perd just looked at the stones.

“Take them,” said the governor. “You’ve fulfilled the terms I set.”

 


“Now tell me,” said the storyteller, “Did the governor act graciously? If so, in what way? Which of his actions were actions of grace, and which not? Should he have been known as the gracious governor?”

 

Her Sincere Belief

“This morning, as I was praying and asking God to show me his will for me today, I heard his voice.” Mrs. Olenco’s* voice had a penetrating quality even though it wasn’t really very loud. It was a determined kind of sound. Those who liked the lady said she radiated sincerity. Others had less complimentary terms.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of anything in this story to anything in the real world is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2012
Henry E. Neufeld

The church board fell silent. The issue was the building of a new recreation center at the church. The finance chair had already reported that they didn’t think the church was in a position to pay for the project or to borrow money and keep up the payments. Several program coordinators had discussed how much the project might benefit the church. The young pastor had asked whether this was the best way in which they could use the church’s resources. Were there other places they could accomplish the same things? Were there other needs that were greater?

But now they faced the problem. How did one respond to Mrs. Olenco? She never left any room to maneuver. What she heard from the Lord was unambiguous and final. So it was with great misgivings that the chair asked her the question.

“What did the Lord tell you?”

He didn’t like the question. He wanted to say something like, “What do you believe you heard from the Lord?” But that would lead to arguments and recriminations. You see, Mrs. Olenco didn’t think she heard from the Lord. She heard from the Lord. She would say so with complete and utter sincerity. When anyone questioned her she was hurt.

“The Lord said unto me, ‘Ye shall build me an house, a place where my children can play and be joyful. A place that will glorify me. A place where the children of my family can learn and grow. Ye shall build it. I shall supply!’ saith the Lord Almighty.”

It was mercifully short for once, but then the message was fairly simple.

“I am sure the Lord can and will supply,” said the pastor. Mrs. Olenco smiled and nodded. The young man was coming along nicely. “But,” he contined, “I still wonder if this is the right way to build this church. We have many other needs, and diminishing funds.” The young man was uncertain and the look on his face and the tone of his voice showed it.

“All these years I’ve served this church! All the times I’ve heard these messages from the Lord telling us how to build his kingdom here in this community! But I know I must endure questioning. All God’s prophets have endured questioning. A simple messenger such as myself cannot expect to escape if the holy prophets didn’t. But it’s hard, very hard, young man. I can only imagine that some of the doubters of the church have influenced you. ‘Heed not the words of the faithless, the doubters, those swayed by merely human knowledge,’ saith the Lord.”

Silence reigned in the room again. Nobody wanted to face her tremendous sincerity. And she was sincere. She truly meant every word. Anyone listening could tell that was the case.

It was a voice vote. Not one person raised their voice to say “no.” The church would proceed to build the new center.

*****

Six months later the church board met again. This time they were to listen to a report of the finance and the building committee. There was a simple problem. The building they hoped to build would cost nearly one and a half times what had been planned originally. The bank was unwilling to loan the funds to the church.

“While I was praying this morning, the Lord spoke to me. He said, ‘There are those who do not believe in my provision. They shall be exposed when they stand in the way of my work.'” As she said it she looked directly at the chair of the finance committee and at the pastor. Everybody knew what she was saying. Everybody wondered how to respond.

The finance committee chair looked abashed. He was indeed an opponent of the project. Further he knew that he would have denied the loan had he been in the position of the loan officer of their bank. But he didn’t know what to do in the face of Mrs. Olenco’s clearly sincere belief that God had spoken to her. It was a choice between impossibilities: facing to that incredibly deep and sincere spirituality and finding some way to make this project move forward. He couldn’t see a way to do anything.

Finally the young pastor spoke. “There is sincerity,” he said, “and there is manipulation.” The room fell into a silence that could be felt. Not even Mrs. Olenco was making a sound. “I too prayed this morning, but I didn’t hear a voice. I simply was filled with a calm conviction that this project was the wrong thing at this time and that it was my duty to make that clear.”

His voice wasn’t penetrating. It was even weak. The people in the room could feel his reluctance to say what he was saying.

“I’d rather not have to say this, but I have to do it. I will not support continuation of this project. I do not believe it’s God’s will. Mrs. Olenco,” he said, turning to face her. “I would rather have said this somewhere else, but I had hoped that with the failure of your previous plans you would let wisdom prevail. I believe you are sincere, but I also believe you are sincerely wrong. That shouldn’t be such a major issue. All of us have been wrong many times and will be wrong many times in the future. Despite your obvious deep faith and sincerity, this is one of your times to be wrong.”

This time there were no tears from Mrs. Olenco. She was angry. “If you won’t accept God’s message, then I will have to leave you to your own devices. I shake the dust off my shoes.” She reached toward her shoes but came nowhere near. “I’m leaving,” she said.

She hesitated, clearly expecting someone to tell her to stop. But for the first time in 20 years the church board was unwilling to listen. Nobody moved to stop her.

Then they took a new vote on the recreation center project.

*****


* I want to emphasize that my use of a woman as the manipulative speaker in this story has nothing to do with gender. I have experience in real life of both men and women who manipulate church politics through claiming God’s authority for their ideas. I also do not deny the possibility of hearing the voice of God, but everybody must exercise discernment. I discuss this in my post The Advantages of Stoning False Prophets.)

(This story was written for and submitted to the One Word at a Time Blog Carnival – Sincere.)

On the Worship of Umnam and Umnan

“Why were you in such a hurry to leave the last village?”

Roban looked at his daughter. She was also his apprentice in his trading business. He drove his wagon on a circuit amongst the towns and villages that extended hundreds of miles and weeks in time, buying and selling things that were available in one place but needed in another.

This is a work of fiction. All persons, places, and events and products of my imagination. Copyright © 2012, Henry E. Neufeld

He had convinced himself that, if his oldest child had been a boy, he would not have had to deal with so many questions. When he mentioned this conclusion to his wife, she broke into gales of laughter. But right now, whether it was sensible or not, he wished for a practical, down to earth, boy child. Yet he knew that nothing short of a real answer would satisfy his daughter.

“Because,” he said after a pause, “tonight is the heathen festival of their evil god Umnan.”

“Why do you call Umnan evil?”

“Because he is an evil god.” Roban tried to sound final, but he knew it wasn’t going to work.

“But Umnan sounds just like our god Umnam. There are lots of words that end in ‘n’ in these southern villages that end in ‘m’ back home.”

This made Roban think. Of course he’d noticed this before. It was essential in adjusting his speaking so he didn’t sound so foreign. Sounding foreign was bad for sales. He paused again, this time for a couple of minutes. He covered the pause by pretending to look over the oxen and the load, making sure all was well.

“It may sound like that,” he said finally, “but it isn’t really. Umnam is kind, just, and loving. He preserves us and defends us from the hostile spirits of nature. We sacrifice to him out of our love and thankfulness. Umnan is evil and nasty, and is out to get everyone in sight. He uses the hostile spirits of nature, the wind, storms, fire, and water. If his worshipers don’t sacrifice to him regularly, he will strike out and kill them.”

He hoped this would divert her, even though he hadn’t answered the question of why he was so determined to leave their village before the feast.

Temporarily, it seemed to work.

“Why?” she asked. This was normally his least favorite question. Right now, however, it offered a long diversion.

“Do you remember the story of the great flood?”

“Of course I do, daddy!” And that was very true. She tended not to forget things—anything, in fact—and she loved the ancient stories.

“Well, give me the outline.”

“Men were evil, so the gods sent a flood to destroy them. But Umnam saw that some of his people were obedient, and sent them warning by the prophet Urvam. They fled to their boats and rode out the flood. Many perished, but Umnam preserved the faithful and brought them to land again. When they reached land, they still had to face falling branches and unstable rock piles. But the sun came out again and a rainbow appeared, which was the sign that Umnam loved them and would preserve them forever.”

It was an admirable summary. Roban had hoped his daughter would tell the story in more detail, thus taking up more time and giving her an opportunity to forget her original question.

“Quite correct,” he said. “But the story of the great flood told in the south is quite different. Their story says that Umnan was angry with his people, and chose to destroy them with storm and flood. But a great hero, Urvan, learned that the flood was coming, and rode downstream on his horse ahead of the waters, warning his people to flee to their boats. Many were lost in the flood, but the survivors made it to shore. At the last moment the chief’s child was struck on the head by a falling branch, loosened by the wind. Thus the people learned that Umnan demands his price.”

He paused again. “You see how they pervert the truth with their demonic story?”

Several minutes of silence ensued. Roban found he approved, but at the same time it made him nervous, almost like the moments while one waited for a wild beast to strike. Of course, this was his daughter!

“But if you look at it differently,” his daughter said finally, “it could be the same story.”

“No, it couldn’t!” Roban came back instantly. “The two stories are not alike at all!”

And then it came. “I see,” said his daughter, deceptively calm. “But you still haven’t told me why you wanted to be out of the village before the feast.”

“Well, I’ll tell you. I didn’t want to, but I will. Every year at the feast, one child is chosen as a sacrifice to Umnan. That is evil! If you were in town, I guarantee they would choose you!”

The daughter truly did believe that was evil, but she still thought the stories were much too much the same.

I wonder whether Umnan actually wants a child sacrificed to him, she thought. Maybe a branch just fell, and that’s the way people interpreted it. But she was actually more cautious than her father gave her credit for, and she didn’t say it out loud.

(This is an exercise in taking a different point of view on a story. You should recognize similarities and dissimilarities with the biblical story of the flood, focusing on the lectionary passage Genesis 9:8-17. I’ll be discussing this in The Way Sunday School Class at First United Methodist Church, Pensacola, February 26, 2012. We ask members to bring various responses, art, poetry, stories, other thoughts.)