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.)

 

Of Gold and Good Advice

The old man sat in his simple room looking at the bag of gold. “Use it however you want,” the rich young fellow had said. “I feel I need to give it to someone, and I have no idea who. I think you may know.”

The old man was renowned for his wisdom and his kindness. He had never sought attention or fame. He lived simply. He gave away whatever he didn’t need, and he needed very little.

This is a work of fiction. All persons, places, and events are products of the author’s imagination.
Copyright © 2012
Henry E. Neufeld

And here was a bag of gold, enough to buy the entire town. At least.

He thought of a plan. He divided up the money, and then he set out to find three young men.

 

“I believe you’re about to go and seek your fortune,” said the wise, old man to the first young man. “I want to make you an offer.”

“What? Make it snappy!” said the young man.

“I have here a bag of gold. It’s quite a considerable amount of money. I will give you a choice. Either I’ll give you this bag of gold, or I will give you a wise saying that will help you as you seek your fortune.”

“Give me the gold, if you have any,” said the first young man.

So the wise, old man handed the young man a small bag of gold. The young man was delighted with his good fortune. He went on his way, richer than he had ever imagined he would be.

“I will offer you a choice,” said the wise man to the second young man. “A wise saying to help you live a full life, or this bag of gold.”

“How much gold is there?” asked the second young man. “Can I get a sample of your wise advice?”

“This bag is filled with gold coins,” said the wise, old man. “And no, you must choose between the gold and the saying. I didn’t say it would be advice.”

The second young man was a thoughtful sort, and he had heard of the famous wise man. “I can always earn money,” he said, “I’ll take the wise saying.”

“You have within you a gift that can connect you with the universe,” said the wise, old man.

“Is that all?” asked the young man. “I should have taken the gold. It wasn’t a fair test.”

“What has fairness to do with it?” asked the wise, old man. “It’s my gold. I can give it or not as I choose. Here! I’ll give you the gold as well.”

The young man went on his way, still fuming. He had the saying and he had the gold, but somehow he felt cheated.

“I will give you a choice,” said the wise, old man to the third young man. “You may either have this bag of gold, or you may have a wise saying that will help you live a full life.”

“I’ll take the wise saying,” said the third young man.

“You don’t care how much gold I’m offering you?” asked the wise, old man.

“Not really,” said the third young man. “I’m not asking for it.”

“Very well, then. Here is the saying: ‘You have within you a gift that can connect you with the universe.'”

The third young man looked thoughtful. “Thank you,” he said. Then he started on his way.

“Here,” said the wise, old man. “I have no use for this. Take the gold as well.”

 

Some years passed, and the wise, old man heard news of the young men he had encountered.

The first young man went to the nearest city. He lived well on the gold. In fact, he could have lived for many years. But within the first year he invested the gold in a trading caravan that promised enormous profit.

The caravan was lost and never heard from again. The young man ended up penniless and eventually took his own life.

The second young man was very much disturbed by the saying given him by the wise, old man. He thought and thought about it, but he couldn’t see any value in it. Wise sayings should be easy to understand and put into practice! He thought the test had been unfair, and even though he was rich beyond his wildest dreams, he was angry, resentful, and very difficult to get along with.

His belief that the world was essentially unfair, setting traps for unsuspecting young men and treating them unjustly led him into conflict with others. He eventually killed someone in a drunken rage, a person who had treated him unfairly, and he ended up in the king’s dungeon.

The third young man was delighted that he had a gift within him. He wasn’t quite sure what it meant to connect with the universe, but he set out to discover what that gift might be. Each time he discovered something that appeared to be a gift he set to work on it to see whether it would help him connect with the universe. He wanted to discover what that would be like.

Over the years he found that he had many gifts, and as he put his best effort into developing every gift he discovered, he found he could do many things. He spent the gold very carefully, living on what he earned, and using it mostly to help him in his quest as well as to help others.

He became quite popular and well liked. He didn’t try to be popular, but there were so many people he had helped or taught, or even just served well when he worked.

Many years later he was sitting in a bar listening to the talk of the men and women from the caravan route. They told the story of a wise man who had a talent for helping people with his knowledge and his money. He recognized the story. It was his. But the speaker attributed it to someone in a town he had never heard of in a country he couldn’t have placed on a map.

“… connect you with the universe.” He suddenly realized just how connected he had become.

He chose to bring his story to the wise, old man himself.

“What do you think of the results of your experiment?” he asked.

 

Now you, reader, what do you think?

The LORD’s judgments are true.
All of these are righteous!
10 They are more desirable than gold—
than tons of pure gold!— (Psalm 19:9b-10a, CEB)

The King and the Innocent Man

After 41 years, 6 months, and 13 days, the king was informed of the innocent man.

The king was filled with consternation. It was not only contrary to the laws of his kingdom, to his very own decrees, in fact. It was contrary to the laws of God. In fact, it was, fundamentally contrary to nature!

So he turned to his courtiers and announced: “I’m going to the royal prison.”

Now the courtiers were filled with consternation. The king had never visited the royal prison. There was no precedent. The royal guard wondered how they could keep the king safe in such a place. The royal chef was certain the kitchen facilities would be inadequate. It was, after all, a prison.

But the king was an absolute ruler, deriving authority from God himself, and the courtiers dared not tell him he couldn’t visit the prison. It was, after all his royal prison, even though nobody had ever imagined he would actually be there.

So quite a train of horses, carriages, and wagons carrying supplies left the palace, and they delivered the king to the royal prison.

Once the governor of the royal prison got over the shock of seeing His Majesty actually inside his royal prison, he inquired as to what His Majesty required of his loyal governor.

“We wish to see the innocent man,” announced the king.

The governor of the prison didn’t know what to say to that. He knew very well which man the king was referring to. But he wasn’t certain if he could admit it without calling the king a liar. It was firmly entrenched in the law of the kingdom that no person who was incarcerated in the royal prison was innocent.

“Your majesty,” said the governor. “Nobody can be imprisoned here if he is innocent.”

“Don’t waste our time,” said the king. That he did not recognize and take account of the governor’s problem showed just how deep his consternation was. He was normally very thoughtful and considerate of the efforts his courtiers made to respect him and the laws of his kingdom.

“The man who claims to be innocent is out with a work crew, breaking rock. He will be sent for immediately.”

Though the men hurried, it was a full hour before the innocent man was brought in before His Majesty. He bowed with his forehead to the ground quite properly. When he was told to rise, he stood respectfully.

“You claim you are innocent,” said the king.

“Yes, your majesty,” said the innocent man.

“Yet you are here in the royal prison, where the law says no innocent man may be incarcerated. It is an intolerable contradiction. Do you deny the law?”

“I do not deny the law, your majesty. I simply know that I am innocent.”

“Can you explain this?”

“No, your majesty, I cannot.”

“So you are innocent?”

“Yes, your majesty.”

“Yet you have been here, living a contradiction for more than 40 years.”

“41 years, 6 months, and 13 days,” said the innocent man.

“You were convicted of a brutal murder by a jury of your peers?”

“Yes, your majesty.”

“When you refused to accept the verdict, your life was examined, is that not so?”

“Yes, your majesty.”

“And they found that you had lost eight children and your first two wives to disease, you had suffered poor crops half of your years as a farmer. Further, in the month prior to the crime, people around you suffered an extraordinary number of catastrophes. Is that not clear evidence that you are cursed by God and not innocent?”

“I don’t know about that, your majesty. I only know that I am innocent.”

“When you refused to accept the verdict of the priests who examined your life, you were subjected to ordeal by being cast into the sacred lake.”

“Yes, your majesty.”

“And the lake failed to receive you. In fact, you floated for an extraordinarily long time. And you still maintained your innocence.”

“Yes, your majesty.”

“You were tortured for 30 consecutive days, and still you refused to admit your guilt.”

“That is true, your majesty.”

After you had spent 20 years in the royal prison, you were offered pardon, as is our royal will. All that was required was that you admit your guilt. Yet for the last 20 years you have refused our grace!”

“For the last 21 years, your majesty.” It could have been insolent, that correction, but the man sounded so respectful.

“Well,” said the king, “I will now give you an opportunity to correct this apparent flaw in the state of nature. I command you as your king to admit your guilt, and even now you will receive our grace.”

“But, your majesty, the law of the kingdom also allows no occasion on which one is permitted to testify falsely. The law is also clear that if I admit my guilt, it is regarded as sworn testimony. And the fact is that I know that I am innocent.”

The king was stumped. He would have been angry but he was too puzzled. Besides being the law of the land, it was simply nature, the way things worked! A person was found guilty by a jury. Yet a jury could be mistaken. But that person could appeal to a check of the omens. If the omens went against him, he could request a trial by ordeal. If he failed all of this, the Divine verdict was clear—he was guilty. After a certain portion of his sentence was fulfilled, he would be offered the opportunity to accept the king’s grace and be relieved. Everyone accepted their guilt and his grace!

He was both just and merciful. He had eliminated the penalty of death. There was nothing more he could or should do!

He turned back to the innocent man. “You are a contradiction. …”

Endings:

  1. Therefore I declare that you are not a man. You are, in fact, a demon, and as such may be eliminated. You will be sent from this place stripped of the protection of the laws you contradict.
  2. Therefore I declare your trial, omens, and ordeal must be null and void and that those who carried them out are guilty of fraud against God and the king. You are free!
  3. Therefore I declare that there may be one, and only one, exception to the law. You are that exception. You are free!
  4. Therefore I find that you are the most stubbornly wicked of all men, compounding brutal murder with unrepentant lying and an endurance that could only be possible with the help of the Evil One. You will remain in prison for life, and I declare you the guiltiest of all despite your denial.

What do you think the king will do?

 

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The Old Church’s Bones

Put together dem bones,

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.

Now hear the word of the Lord.

(Wikipedia)

Ezekiel, from Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ce...
Image via Wikipedia

The words kept running through Lakesha’s mind as she walked down the street from the school bus stop toward home. They’d been singing the song in choir, and she had asked where it came from. The teacher had read to them from Ezekiel 37.

She looked at the church. It was old, but she could remember a year ago when it had been closed. At the last meeting the men of the church board sat at the front of the church and explained how they could no longer pay a pastor and no longer afford the maintenance. There was a sign out front that said the church was for sale, but nobody wanted property in this neighborhood.

As she looked at the church she suddenly heard those words again: “Oh you dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.”

It was so real that she looked around to see who might have spoken, but there was nobody there. Down the street she could see a drug deal taking place, but she knew none of those men had spoken.

She turned back toward the church and heard again: “Prophecy to the bones: ‘Oh you dry bones, hear the word of the Lord!'”

She looked around again, but still there was nobody there. Just a dead building, whose time had passed, in a neighborhood that was dying, if it was not already dead.

She looked at the church again. “Oh you dry bones,” she whispered, “hear the word of the Lord.”

She could feel a sense of emptiness, of dissatisfaction, as though her words were quieter than her whisper; no, as though they had been sucked up into a void.

“Oh you dry bones,” she said a little bit louder. “Hear the word of the Lord!” Her voice almost reached a squeak by the end, but it seemed that they were swallowed up in a void.

She remembered how often her mother had accused her of talking too loud. “Oh you dry bones,” she shouted, “Hear the word of the Lord!”

She had the sense now that something was happening, that she might actually have been heard. In fact she had been. The drug dealer yelled at her.

“You crazy? Shut up!”

“Oh you dry bones,” she shouted again, “hear the word of the Lord!”

He turned and walked away, apparently not wanted to be involved with such a crazy girl. She walked up to the church and pushed on the door. It swung open. The lock had long since been broken. There were beer and whiskey bottles lying around. The place was a mess.

Lakesha had never been that religious of a girl, but suddenly the scene offended her. She had been able to tolerate the neighborhood because she thought she’d escape someday, go off to college, and never come back. That was how it worked. The people who stayed just continued to deteriorate.

She grabbed a bottle and threw it out the window, a window that was already broken. Then another, and another. She made certain to throw them out the same window so they’d all be in a pile outside.

A few minutes later she heard someone else come into the church. It was one of the church ladies, one of the folks who had given up in discouragement. “What are you doing here, girl?” she asked.

“Oh you dry bones,” said Lakesha, “hear the word of the Lord!”

The lady looked around. “Can these bones live?” she asked herself quietly. Then she grabbed a bottle and tossed it out the window. A few minutes later, someone else arrived, carrying a broom. Then someone more came, carrying a garbage can. They were all the women of the community, mostly elderly, along with a few teenagers and children.

“Why haven’t we been meeting here?” asked one.

“You thought it couldn’t be done,” said Lakesha.

“The church board said it couldn’t be done.”

“The church board never read Ezekiel, I think,” said Lakesha. “Or maybe they didn’t believe it.”

*****

It was a year later when a reporter came by the church. He’d heard strange stories about the little community. He showed up on a weekday during the day and found the church filled with people. There were no pews, but there was a kitchen, a pantry, a dining room, and back in what he thought might have been the pastor’s study he heard a sewing machine running. He asked for the pastor, and was directed to Lakesha.

“You’re the pastor?” he asked.

She laughed. “No, I’m just the loudmouth.”

“I thought you were reviving the church here. This looks like a kitchen, or some kind of service organization.”

“It is a service organization, it is a church, and it is revived,” said Lakesha.

“But I don’t see any place to have a church service.”

“Well, we don’t exactly have what you’d recognize as a church service. We just get together and pray and share and sing. We put the chairs out in a circle. Then we put them back around the table and we eat together.”

“But where do you get the money for all of this?”

“We just put what we have together and share it. You’d be amazed at what people can do in this community when they realize they can and just start trying.”

“What about the drug dealers? What about crime?”

“Some of our grandmothers walk down the streets at night and watch them. You’d be amazed at how fast they move.”

“So how did it all get started?”

“Oh you dry bones,” said Lakesha giggling, “hear the word of the Lord!”

 

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Time to Shine

Jerusalem temple, solomon's temple, third temple
The older people who had seen Solomon's temple wept when they saw the rebuilt temple.Image via Wikipedia

“Arise! Shine! Your light has come! [Isaiah 60:1] Bah!” said the man with the white hair and long beard.1

“So you didn’t really like what the prophet said,” answered the other, somewhat younger man.

“Oh, the words were pretty. He’s a good talker, no doubt. But what do you think?” He looked down the road. It led to Jerusalem, where the temple was rebuilt–sort of–but where there were no walls. But there were enough ruins. Yes, plenty of those, telling the story of better days.

The younger man watched the other’s eyes and saw his thoughts reflected there. “But you know, the prophet stood amongst those ruins and made his proclamation. ‘Your light has come!’ Did your spirit not stir within you?”

“Oh, I think my spirit is past stirring. My spirit stirred when Sheshbazzar [Ezra 1] called for people to leave Babylon and return and rebuild Jerusalem. Oh, those were the days! We had pictures in our heads, beautiful pictures of what Jerusalem would look like, what the new temple would look like.”

This is a work of fiction, based on the texts cited in square brackets []. The characters and dialog are my own invention. Copyright © 2011, Henry E. Neufeld.

“I think the temple is beautiful now! It’s a sign of what can be.”

“Oh, but you should have heard the older people wail when they saw the new temple. ‘Nothing like Solomon’s temple,’ they said [Haggai 2:3]. And they were probably right. What do I know? But I thought like you do now. I thought we’d make it work. I thought we’d soon have the city rebuilt.”

“But we’ve come a long way! We can rebuild!”

“Bah! You young’uns. Wait till you’ve lived as long as I have and see how little things have changed.”

“So what should we do?”

“We stay and we work. What else can we do? Do you have the money to move back to Babylon?”

“I’ve never seen Babylon. I wonder if it’s as good a place as some of you older folks say.”

“It’s better.”

“Better? Than what?”

“Look around you.” His eyes wandered, pausing on the tumbled down stones of the gate that hadn’t been rebuilt, then moving to the scattered piles of rock that had once been part of the town wall. He looked at the dusty road, where trees should have been growing. He looked back toward the town where a few houses had been restored, and where he knew very little grain had been stored. ‘Caravans cover our roads? Wealth of the nations coming to us [Isaiah 60:6]?’ Trading for what? Buying what? ‘Nations come to our light?’ What light? We don’t have enough oil for our lamps. You tell me, what light?”

“But shouldn’t we believe God’s prophets?”

“Oh, we had prophets in the old days too. ‘You’re going home,’ they said. ‘God has decided this is enough [Isaiah 40:2],’ they said. And now look at us! Believe me, none of us who heard those words thought we’d be spending our old age starving in the ruins.”

“So what do we do?”

“What can we do?” He paused and looked into the distance. “Yes, what can we do?”


What do you think? Is the old man right or wrong based on what you know of history?

When you’ve considered that, ask yourself whether you see prophecies of the second coming of Jesus in the same way. Do you use the same arguments? Do you see any parallels?


1 This story is based on the idea of deutero- and trito-Isaiah, which would have a prophet preaching late in the Babylonian exile and another preaching to the exiles at some point during rebuilding. If you prefer, think instead of a reading from an existing scroll of Isaiah.

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The Missionary’s House

Iced tea with lemon.
Image via Wikipedia

*“You know what I think is wrong here?”

The question startled Ward. He was sitting on the porch of his house looking out at a beautiful view from the top of a hill. He and his visitor both had glasses of iced tea. They had just finished a wonderful meal. He had enjoyed showing his guest, a “retired” missionary, around his station. He didn’t see anything wrong.

“Wrong?” he asked. “I think things are going rather well.”

“Yes, I suppose they are, in a sense.”

Ward had a great deal of respect for his visitor, and wasn’t going to miss out if there was another sense in which things weren’t so good. He smiled. “I’m guessing there’s another sense,” he said.

“Yes, there is. I think, perhaps, you should try to look at this situation through Jesus’s eyes.”

“I thought I had. I’m here far from home, serving people in need, and doing a rather good job of it. I don’t want to boast, but we’re caring for more people, seeing more of the local children in our school, and we have more people in church than we ever did under any of my predecessors at this station.”

“Yes, I saw all that. I read the reports. The mission board likes reports. Actually I don’t have anything against reports myself. It’s just that something about this whole scene seems wrong. I think we need to look at it through Jesus’s eyes.”

“OK, you keep saying that, and I know you wouldn’t say it idly or without having something specific in mind. But you’re going to have to say a few more words. I don’t get it.”

“I’m thinking of John 20:21. ‘Just as the father sent me, I’m sending you.'”

“Yes, but are you forgetting you’re talking to someone who already answered the call to mission service?” Ward couldn’t quite keep the impatience out of his voice.

“Yes, you’re a missionary. But are you going out in the way that Jesus went out?”

“Well, I left my home and gave up a lucrative career. I came over here and gave it all up. I think I’ve been sent.”

“And here you are, suffering for Jesus.” The words had a sharp edge, but the tone was very, very gentle.

“Is it that you think I’m not suffering enough? Do I need more trials and tribulations? What?” Ward again sounded a bit impatient. He felt pretty good about the things he had given up.

“I don’t know about suffering. Willing to suffer, yes. Actual suffering? That’s up to God. But let me give you a few phrases to consider. ‘It was fitting that God … should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings’, ‘all have one Father’, ‘Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters,’ ‘like his brothers and sisters in every respect.’ All of those come from Hebrews 2:10-18.”

“I’m familiar with the passage,” said Ward.

“But are you willing to apply it?”

“Again, I think I’m not getting your point.”

“We’re sitting up here on a hill, looking down on the village where the people you serve are living from a nice house. How many of them have the food you have? How many of them can enjoy a relaxing evening like this?”

“I would guess none of them.”

“Your children go to the American school. Your wife drives them 20 miles one way, twice a day. I don’t think I’ve seen them in contact with the local children since I’ve been here.”

“I don’t think it’s wrong to want the best education for my children.”

“No, it’s not wrong. I’m not judging you for any particular thing here. I’m asking you to consider a pattern. How close are you to being ‘just like the brothers and sisters’ you’ve come here to serve?”

“I think I’m pretty close. I don’t think protecting my children from local diseases and bad influences is a bad thing.”

“I suppose there are no bad influences or diseases at the American school in the city. But I’m not certain what your choice should be in each case. It’s the pattern. For another example, I’ve never seen you eat with any of the local people.”

“I do, though not often. My wife would prefer not to.”

“I wonder why that is. But it’s just a piece of the pattern. I wonder what it is that the people here see in your mission. Is it the spirit of Jesus? Is it the call to service? Or is it the benefits of being connected with the American missionary with the nice house?”

“You surely don’t think I should fail to provide what I can manage to provide for the people?”

“I think you’re still missing my point. It’s the pattern. I can’t say precisely what you should or shouldn’t do. What I do see is a pattern that separates you from the people you serve. Rather than helping them also become servants of Jesus, they’re becoming your servants, earning the benefits you can provide.”

“That’s harsh!”

“Ward, I’m talking to you this way because I respect you. Don’t worry, I’m not going to report to the mission board that you’re a failure or that you aren’t doing your job. This isn’t about mission boards. It’s between you and me. You’re sent as Jesus was sent. Do you think you have done everything to go out into the field in the way that Jesus went out?”

Ward looked down from the hill toward the village that had gathered around his clinic. Was it possible that he was making disciples for himself, and serving himself, in spite of what he had given up?

“I appreciate your willingness to be honest,” said Ward, and as he said it, he found it was true. “I’ll think and pray about what you’ve said. It bothers me. It seems extreme. But in another sense it rings true.”

“Thinking and praying is all I can ask.”


*This is a work of fiction. All persons, places, and events are products of my imagination. Copyright © 2010, Henry E. Neufeld

 

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You Will Have a Son

John the Baptist baptizing Christ
Image via Wikipedia

*“You’re pregnant, and you’re going to have a baby boy.”

Dee Anne looked up from her burger, fries, and coke and saw a woman of ordinary size with long, black hair, and piercing dark eyes. Her hair was braided, and her clothes looked just a bit out of date. She didn’t look entirely crazy, though her gaze was intent and a bit unnerving.

Dee Anne just got her mouth open to respond when the woman continued. “Do you mind if I sit down?” Without waiting for an answer, she sat.

Dee Anne again had her mouth open to speak, but the woman just kept talking. “Oh, no, not a virgin birth.” She waved her hand in front of her face as though brushing away the very idea like a fly. “I know you’re not married.” Both of their eyes moved to the wedding band on Dee Anne’s left hand. “Oh, I know you wear that wedding band to keep people in this conservative town from asking questions, but you’re not married.”

She paused to take a breath, but again Dee Anne only got her mouth open. Before she could speak, the woman continued. “That virgin birth thing was kind of a one time thing. It’s not going to happen that way again. But special births, yes, there are more of those. Like Sampson. He was announced by God’s messenger. And John the Baptist. Yes, that would be a good example. John the Baptist. A child to prepare the way. Children are such a wonderful thing, aren’t they?”

“But I’m on the pill.” Dee Anne hadn’t intended to say anything of the sort. Part of her wanted to tell the crazy woman to get lost. What business was all this of hers anyhow? But instead she said, “I’m on the pill.”

“Well, what are a few little pills to God? Sarah was too old to have a baby. Rebecca was barren. So was Rachel. In any case, I just wanted you to know you’re going to have a son, and that he will be a very special child. God has called him to important work. You should be very careful how you raise him. Make sure he’s healthy in mind and body. Make sure he learns about God and Jesus early.”

“But I don’t even go to church! I’m not sure what I believe.” Again Dee Anne had planned to say something like, “Please leave me alone. I don’t even know you and I think you’re not right.” But she didn’t.

“But you will go to church. In fact, you are especially anointed by God. You have been chosen to bear a new messenger from God, a new servant of Jesus.”

She paused. “Well, that’s it. Now you know.” She got up and walked out of the cafe. Before Dee Anne figured out how to react, she was gone.


Dee Anne couldn’t have explained why she bought the pregnancy test kit. But that night she found herself in her bathroom with the kit in hand, waiting for the strip to change color …

What do you think happened next? If Dee Anne is pregnant, is it significant, or just a coincidence? Why? (Read Judges 13 and Luke 1:5-25.)


*This is a work of fiction. All characters and events are products of my imagination. Copyright © 2010, Henry E. Neufeld.

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The Last Sandwich

“I’d like the sandwich you have in that bag.”

It was the odd way he said it and the foreign accent that made her stop and look to her left.  He was sitting on the sidewalk with his back to the wall.  He looked thin, and his clothes were worn, but generally clean and carefully patched.

“This is for my son,” she said.  “If it was for me I’d give it to you.”

“You can get another sandwich for your son,” he said.

“No, I can’t.  I used the last of my money to buy this one.  I have no idea where I’ll get any money to buy any more food.”

“Still, I’m asking you for the sandwich.” He didn’t sound angry.  He didn’t sound cruel, as though gloating over taking the last food from a child.  He just sounded matter-of-fact, like it was a routine request.

“How can you ask me this?”  She was angry now.  She didn’t know why she continued the conversation, but she did.  “Are you a cruel man?”

“I am a man of God,” he said.  “I’m asking you to provide for me.  God says that if you grant my request you will never again lack food for your son.”

She looked at him for a moment.  She somehow couldn’t think of him as a fraud.  She held the bag out to him.

She was a block down the street before she started to wonder how she would face her son and reached into her pocket.


How do you react to the man’s request and this woman’s response? What, if anything did she find in her pocket?

Now read 1 Kings 17:8-15. You probably already recognized the story, but go ahead and read it anyhow. Is your reaction to the Bible story different? Why or why not?