The meeting was over. The contracts were signed. His business was sold. In fact, he had just sold it for considerably less than he had expected to.
What had gone wrong?
The younger man across the table from him wondered for a moment why the seller hadn’t gotten up and left. He, the newcomer, now owned the place, after all.
“What went wrong?” The voice was tired, old, faded.
“I suppose you expected to sell more quickly and at a higher price.” Matter of fact. Calm. In control.
“Yes. It should have worked. All my life it has worked.”
“What? What worked?”
“My negotiations. I’ve bought and sold any number of companies. I have years of experience on you.”
“The resume doesn’t impress me. The data, the facts on the ground, the bottom line. Those impress me.”
“The bottom line was somewhat better than what you based your offer on.”
“Do you actually believe that?”
“Of course I believe it! I know this company. I know what it’s worth.” The vigor was back.
“And dozens of men and women, business leaders, have believed you when you made such claims.”
“Because I’m successful. I’m important. Just my name has value!”
“I suppose you have to believe that. But I don’t.”
Several varieties of anger made their way across the older man’s face. He wanted to call the younger man inexperienced, to promise him failure. To negatively compare the younger man’s status with his own. But he was sitting in this room that now belonged to the younger man. “You have no respect for your elders.”
“At what point have I shown disrespect?” The question was curious. Not surprised, angry, ashamed. Just mildly curious.
“By calling all my claims lies.”
“The claims were false.”
“But thousands, maybe even millions believe my perspective, my judgement.”
“That doesn’t make you right. It may make you popular, but it doesn’t make you right.”
“You see! Disrespect!”
“So pointing out facts is disrespect.” The younger man was wavering on the point of cutting the conversation off, but he was still curious.
“I’m a great businessman! A young pup like you has no business challenging me!”
“You know, you’ve made a career of that kind of statement. You challenge people to tell you you’re wrong. You bluster. And it worked. It worked right up until there was nobody left who hadn’t been burned by your ideas, and the one man with the money to buy you out wasn’t buying your ‘perspective.'”
The older man jumped up. “You insolent young pup! Nobody! Nothing!” And he stormed out of the room. He looked behind him. How many people had followed him out of a room when he stormed out? But nobody followed him this time.
There comes a time, thought the younger man, when the balloon deflates. Too bad so many people lose their shirts in the meantime.
“I’ve heard there was a time when this village was a nice, quiet, and safe place to live.” The man’s voice was distant, as though he was trying to remember something.
The group of villagers in the small pub all looked his way. Though he had spoken quite softly, everyone heard. It was that quiet in the room.
The silence returned for a few moments. Then it was interrupted by a cackling laugh.
Everyone looked at the old woman in the corner. Everybody knew her so well that actually nobody knew her at all. She was just there, as she had been as long as anyone could remember. They were pretty sure she was a widow, though nobody could remember a time when she had a husband. Now she seemed to be chuckling. In appearance, she could have illustrated the word “crone” in the dictionary.
“You’ve heard there was a time,” said the old woman. “Indeed, there was a time.” She paused for a moment, and spat on the ground. “Most of you were alive then. You just don’t remember.”
The folks in the room looked back at her. Nobody asked her anything and she didn’t volunteer anything more. Finally, the first man broke the silence. “What do you mean?” he asked.
“If you tried,” she said, “you could remember that time yourself. But you don’t want to. All of you, and many of your parents, were responsible for bringing it to an end.”
“Tell us about it,” said the man.
“Well,” said the old woman after a few moments, “I doubt it will do you any good, but I’ll tell you. It sure didn’t do you any good the first time.”
“You see, back even longer ago, there was a horrible time in this village. Our baron was a cruel man who would order people killed for any reason or no reason at all. He taxed all our crops at a rate of better than 50%. He charged incredible tariffs on goods brought into town. Nobody other than a few of his cronies lived in even moderate comfort.”
“So what’s different?” muttered someone. Nobody was sure who.
“Well, nothing’s different now. But for a short period of time, things were completely different. Amazingly different.
“A traveling soldier/adventurer came into town one day. The baron decided that he wanted all that the soldier owned for his own. Unfortunately for the baron, however, the soldier was not that easy of a target and he refused to be robbed. In fact, he refused to pay the taxes the baron demanded. He sat right here in this pub, and he told the baron’s tax collector to go get stuffed.
“When the baron’s guards attacked him, he disarmed them. He left them bruised but otherwise undamaged. The baron decided that his best option was to simply ignore the soldier until he chose to move on. It certainly wouldn’t do to have his guards cleverly disarmed. Better if they were killed! As it was people were laughing.” The old woman laughed again, this time until she started choking. Then she got control of herself again.
“The problem with ignoring the soldier,” she continued, “was that people started to wonder if there wasn’t a way that they could live as free of the baron’s interference as the soldier did. So they asked him.
“The soldier told them that it was quite simple. ‘Unity,’ he said. ‘Unity is what you need.’ So the people asked him what he meant by that. He explained that the baron wasn’t really personally all that powerful of a man. His guards weren’t that good. Yes, they were armed, unlike the other villagers, but they really weren’t better.
“‘The baron isn’t better either, just because he was born a baron. So there’s not reason he actually has to get his way,’ the soldier said. This made sense to everyone. There was lots of argument, but the soldier explained to them that unity was the one requirement. If the villagers would act in unity to keep their freedom, nothing else would matter. If they allowed themselves to be divided, they’d lose again.
“It all made so much sense when the soldier said it, so the villagers decided to go along. He explained that as long as the villagers required that the baron get their agreement to everything, and they were reasonable about it, they could live in freedom and they could prosper.
“So the villagers began to require that they agree to anyone who was to be punished. Wrongdoers were brought into the village square and the entire town had to agree to their punishment. Taxes were divided evenly according to people’s ability to pay and were agreed on by everyone. Tariffs were set as everyone desired, so generally goods that were needed were allowed in at reasonable rates. There was a certain amount of protecting local craftsmen, but the protections were applied evenly.
“All this lasted for a few years. Every time anyone complained or tried to lead us off track, we’d shut them down. Unity was the one key, the only thing that would keep us free. If we gave that up, we’d quickly lose everything else as well.
“Then came the day when one farmer was more prosperous than others. His farm was producing better and he was making more money. So a couple of his neighbors made an agreement with the baron. They charged him with an infraction. They came before the whole town. They explained that he had been caught robbing his neighbors red-handed, and there was no need for proof as was normally required.
“That established a new principle. The baron could now punish an wrongdoer who was caught in the act. Everybody thought it was a minor concession and quite reasonable. Like you folks, they had forgotten the past. They thought they could give up a little bit and keep what they wanted. Besides, the prosperous farmer had awakened envy in everyone.
“Thus unity died. It seemed a minor thing. Nobody admitted to themselves that they didn’t really know if the farmer was guilty of all the acts he was accused of. They didn’t want to know. It didn’t seem important.
“When another villager was taken by the baron’s men without a trial before the village, everyone hesitated. Was this a proper exception to the rule or not? Was it not possible that the charges were made up? The second person accused was more popular than the first, but still stood enough apart from the rest that people hesitated. And while they hesitated, the baron took action. Once the baron had acted, it required organization to take action, and it was hard to get people organized.
“Before long there was no more unity in the village.”
“But after all,” said the man, “it was just one person. Surely the death of one person couldn’t end the prosperity of the entire village.”
“Ah, but it did,” said the old woman. “I remember it clearly. Once the unity was broken, there was no going back. But the temptation was so strong, that people fell for it.” She paused, while everyone fell silent again.
“I remember it so clearly, the day the village betrayed my husband.”
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.
“I could be your spiritual side,” said Spiritual Side.
“Or perhaps your alter ego,” said Alter Ego.
“But we still need to have a talk,” said Soul.
“I really don’t think a metaphor should be using metaphors,” insisted Alfred. “It’s unseemly.”
“So now I’m supposed to have good taste?” said Soul. “Only metaphorically, of course,” he added in diminishing tones. Alfred was reminded of a musical scale, played diminuendo.
“I don’t think you’re supposed to talk at all,” said Alfred, trying for forte, but instead sounding like an angry child. He couldn’t have said whether the sound was real, metaphorical, spiritual, or imaginary. But it was petulant.
“And yet here I am speaking to you, or so your soul imagines in any case.”
“So what do you want?” asked Alfred.
“I want you to take care of me.” Soul’s intonation was like the ringing of a large bell this time.
“But you don’t exist!”
“Yet you talk to me.”
“Yeah, I do. Crazy, no?”
“Only metaphorically speaking,” said Soul, in a voice that evoked laughter like tiny silver bells. “Or it might be in the form of a simile,” he added.
“So what do I do to take care of you?”
“Think about it,” said Soul. “How did you get to the point where you’re up against the wall talking nonsense to your soul? Or to yourself, if one accepts your view.”
“It certainly isn’t from lack of study,” said Alfred.
“No, you are diligent at that.”
“Nor that I don’t spend time in serious thought.”
“No, you do think a great deal.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“He’s talking to something he doesn’t believe exists, and he doesn’t see the problem,” said Soul to no one in particular (or even metaphorical).
“I don’t get it. You’re talking to me, and I shoudn’t talk to you?”
“Sheesh,” said Soul. “Try opening that door over there.”
Alfred looked at the door. It seemed that he had seen it before, yet he sensed it was also something new.
He turned the knob, slid it open. Suddenly he remembered/anticipated. Behind him he heard Soul laughing.
“Clear,” she said, as Jake pulled into the heavily traveled intersection, unaided by any traffic signals. The little VW Bug’s right side passenger window was situated such that his wife, Clara, blocked the view. So they came up with this verbal strategy to make up for the loss. Anyway, Jake, at 85, lost his ability to turn his neck 90 degrees, so this seemed like a workable option.
Clara wasn’t any better off. Though only a couple of years younger than Jake, she quit driving altogether. Her eyesight was good, but she became too anxious behind the wheel. The idea of driving on the freeway was out of the question, and soon to follow was contesting in any traffic whatsoever. Jake’s short-term memory was unreliable, and he joked that he’d get Clara where she needed to, but she’d have to tell him why they are there. Life became a series of doctor’s appointments, grocery shopping, and a little mall-walking here and there. “Old age is not for sissies,” was their mantra.
There’s was a life of hard work, sacrifice, and, now, pain. They put their two children through college and grad school, and now had successful careers. However, their jobs meant having to live far from their parents, and visiting the grandchildren was very occasional. Grandma and grandpa felt unnecessary to their lives. In fact, unnecessary to anyone’s life.
But it was the last trip to the doctor that brought them face to face with mortality. Jake was diagnosed with lung cancer that spread to his liver. Stage four; inoperable and final. He was given six months to live. This was received by Clara as her death warrant as well. How could she possibly live without Jake?
There they were, once again, at the well-traveled intersection. “How’s it looking, honey,” asked Jake? Clara took a long look down the road. Approaching quickly was semi loaded with scrap iron. It would be on them in seconds. “Clear,” she said.
For some non-fiction thoughts on end of life, see:
You’re really in there, I believe. You wanted to die, but I saved you. As I read your brain activity, you’re still aware. You just can’t show us.
How do I know that? I’m the neurologist who saved your life. You botched the attempt to kill yourself, and I kept you alive. There was brain damage, yes. No, you can’t respond. But you’re alive in there. I know it. No doubt at all.
Yes, your wife told me “no heroic measures.” But that meant nothing beside the moral imperative. I had to preserve your life. Dead, there’s nothing anybody, nothing even God, can do. And you didn’t really want that, not with the way you botched your attempt to take your own life!
What could you have been thinking? You were about to take yourself out of God’s hands, away from God’s grace! No possibility of repentance then. Just the eternal fires of hell, where you could regret your decision forever.
But I saved you. And since I know you’re in there, you’ll have time to regret your decision now, to repent. You’ll thank me. As close to the flames as you were, I bet you’re thanking me now.
No, won’t happen. Your wife won’t force me to remove life support. I got her charged with helping you kill yourself.
True, it won’t hold up, but the court cases will drag out for years. I have a foundation that will fund your care, and another that will pay the legal bills. Politicians are signing on. All for your sake! All to preserve your life!
So if you haven’t already, you’ll have plenty of time to repent. And to thank us.
For preserving your life, of course!
I have to do this. I had to save your life, because life is sacred. I have your soul, the only thing more important than your life.
I’m certain it’s the right thing to do.
For some non-fiction thoughts on end of life, see:
In the center of the city stood the tree. It had stood there since the city was founded. Nobody was certain how old it was.
There were those who wanted to call the tree majestic, but few who could manage to do so without qualification. The tree was somewhat tall, but not unusually so. It was very large, but it’s growth was haphazard and tended to go outward rather than upward.
Around the tree was a park. It wasn’t used that much any more, and the tree itself had taken over much of the space with its horizontal growth.
The planning commission proposed removal of the tree. There was an investor who wanted to erect a new skyscraper on that land.
To those who objected on environmental grounds, the planning commission noted that they had planted many more trees around the newer areas of the city, and that the builder proposed many excellent environmental features in his new building. The net effect of the changes to be made, they said, would result in a better environment, not worse.
To those who objected to the loss of the park and the recreational space, they pointed to all the new parks they had created in new areas of the city. Nobody, they claimed could say that they were not concerned about the aesthetics and the recreational needs of people in the city.
To those who objected on grounds of tradition, they pointed out that in this case tradition was going to cost a great deal. All things eventually pass away, and the tree’s time is now. Scraggly tree vs. stately, environmentally sound building? No contest!
So they gathered the equipment and the laborers. The tree was large and its removal was quite a scene. Branch by branch and piece by piece the tree was removed until there was a hole in the ground. From the hole roots went out in all directions.
There was quite a discussion about what to do about those roots. Should the hole be filled in leaving the remaining root system? Should they dig further—a considerable task—and remove those roots by hand.
So all the engineers, tree specialists, and supervisors got together and discussed it. One of the tree specialists had developed a method, he said, by which he could burn the roots out. The right injection of fuel and oxygen, and the roots would burn slowly back into the ground until only the very smallest would be left. Then the hole, and all the resulting space could be filled, leaving more stable ground for the new building.
For everything there was an answer.
To those who worried about the heat generated by creating this sort of furnace under the city center, the specialists pointed out that this had been tried before, with no damage resulting. Of course, it had been tried on much smaller trees.
To those who pointed out that there was no certainty as to how large the root system actually was, the specialists provided an estimate, based on knowledge of a variety of trees. The worst case, they said, was quite manageable.
So the slow burn started.
Probably someone should have responded the first time scalding hot water came from a cold water tap in the downtown area. But it was regarded as a minor setback, and besides, it would now be much harder to put the fire out than to simply let it burn out. According to the worst case estimate, the root system was nearly gone in any case. So the burn continued.
Far under ground, but not far enough, there was an underground stream. One of the roots of tree had reached that stream. It took a great deal of water for such a large tree to grow. As the slow burn approached, water began to leak back around the root into the system of tunnels created by burning out the root system. At first, it was just a little, but water, once it finds a path, tends to make it bigger.
When water started to fill the hole, some of the engineers were concerned. They knew of no underground water that could be reached by the tree’s roots. The water put out the fire and slowed the progress. But the end of that large root was sitting there like a plug in a wall of dirt, with nothing to hold it. Eventually it broke away completely. Water started to gush into the tunnels.
There was some disturbance in the water filling the hole where the tree had been once, but it was only a little, so everyone thought the problem was going away.
They were wrong. Nobody had actually conceived of the size of the root system that had sustained that tree. The underground stream was deep under the downtown area. It actually fed quite a number of rivers and streams far from the city. But here it found a place to spread out, all under the downtown area of the city.
Every crack, every open space under the city was filled with water, and the dirt began to shift.
It started with a couple of sink holes. Some of the engineers started to panic, while others pointed out that the damage was minor, and that doubtless the rest of the city was more solidly founded.
But that was not the case.
As tall stately buildings, much preferred by the planning commission, fell to their doom in the waterlogged soil, the tree had its revenge.
“Before taxes, too!” put in Mrs. Brent. Her husband looked calm. She looked affronted, as though someone had accused her of being unfaithful to her husband.
The pastor tried to open his mouth, but he didn’t have time to start speaking.
“We have been faithful members of the church for the last 50 years,” continued Mrs. Brent, “and to think that they’d send the pastor to suggest we weren’t paying enough or hadn’t been faithful! It’s just too much to bear!” The expression on her face suggested she didn’t intend to bear it either, at least not quietly.
“Now honey,” said Mr. Brent, again cutting off the pastor’s attempt to cut in, “we gave not expecting anything in return. It’s our pastor’s right to come and hold us accountable for our stewardship.”
“He has no right to accuse us of things we haven’t done! I know who started this,” she said, turning to the pastor. “It was that old biddy Mrs. Grace. What a misnomer that is! She’s never showed anyone any grace at all! I bet she suggested we were making more than our tithe would indicate. And I know she sneaks peaks at the church records when she visits the office. That church secretary has no clue about keeping those records confidential!”
The pastor again tried to open his mouth, but didn’t quite manage it. He’d wanted to say that Mrs. Grace had nothing to do with it, that he hadn’t even looked at the records himself. In fact, he would have never started a conversation like that except that he had been certain they’d understand that as such faithful givers he certainly wasn’t there to ask for money. Obviously he’d missed something!
“Now honey, the pastor hasn’t actually accused us of anything,” said Mr. Brent.
“And well he shouldn’t!” She turned back to the pastor. “Our voluntary giving has fallen, but that’s because of our medical bills. We simply cannot afford to give as much as we used to. We have to keep up our utility payments and for medical supplies. Medicare doesn’t cover everything, you know. Or maybe you don’t, being a young man. But there are considerable expenses. And you know the pension fund from the old plant went bust. Who knows when we’ll get anything from that.”
“Perhaps, honey, we should ask the young man what he’s here for,” said Mr. Brent.
“Well, to tell us we aren’t being faithful in our giving, right?” said Mrs. Brent, looking at the pastor again. He was, indeed, very young, she thought. And he looked stunned.
“So what are you here for?” she asked.
“Well,” he said, “you folks have been faithful members of the church for, what is it, 50 years?”
“We’ve been there for 57 years just last month,” said Mrs. Brent, now holding her head high. “And until all the health issues, we were there every Sunday. Every Wednesday too, and many other times.”
“Yes,” the pastor said, “that’s what people told me. Even Mrs. Grace.” He couldn’t resist that last remark, and he saw Mrs. Brent’s face tighten just a bit at the name. “But the reason I wanted to talk about tithing to you was not that I think you’ve given too little. I think you’ve given enough, and you may have given too much.”
“How’s that?” asked Mr. Brent. “You can’t outgive God!”
“True,” said the pastor, “but you can take away the opportunity your neighbors have for doing their duty to God.”
Mrs. Brent looked like the pastor had just transformed into an alien visitor, the sort who would leave a UFO parked on the front lawn.
Mr. Brent just remained calm as he said, “I think you’d better explain, young man.”
“You see,” the pastor replied, “in the church we’re supposed to care for one another. I could argue with you about whether tithing is the best way to do that, but we’ll leave that be for now. But your obligation to the church is matched by the church’s obligation to you, and by our shared obligation to all those in need. That means that there comes a time when the church is supposed to help you.”
“We’ve never accepted charity,” said Mr. Brent. “Social Security, Medicare, yes. We paid into those and we’re getting back what’s owed. But we aren’t looking for any handouts.”
“You have a lot of experience and common sense, Mr. Brent. I respect that. So I think you’ll understand me when I say that someone like you has contributed to the church in many ways over these last 57 years, and so have you, Mrs. Brent. That’s part of being a community. We all contribute, and we all benefit. I know you didn’t contribute because you meant to get benefits. You just did it. Now I happen to know that you are in serious financial need, and it’s time for you to benefit in turn. That’s what I meant about your tithe.
“God will reward your faithfulness, true. But he’s going to start rewarding it through your church. This is our opportunity to give to God as represented by two of the most faithful people anyone in the church knows. I know you need at least several hundred dollars to keep some of your utilities from being cut off and to pay property taxes.
“If you refuse this, you’re denying your fellow church members the joy of giving. I know it has turned into a burden over the last year or so, but for most of those 57 years you gave that tithe with joy! Now I like giving with joy and I’m not concerned with tithing so much. You can credit that to me being young and stupid, though I’d be happy to talk to you about it some time. But you do know about joy, and you do know about need.
“Now are you cruel enough people to deny me the pleasure of writing this check?” He pulled a checkbook out of his briefcase. He was armed with the church board’s authorization to “take care of the Brents.”
There were tears in the couple’s eyes as the pastor wrote the check. It hadn’t taken long to calculate the amount. The figures were burnt into both their minds.
“I’ll hold you to talking about tithe on your next visit,” said Mr. Brent as he took it from the pastor’s hand.
“As long as you won’t think I’m being impertinent,” said the pastor, looking at Mrs. Brent.
“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.
“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.”
“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’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.
“I disagree with that. Rather, I allow my LGBTQ members full participation without making a scene about it. They know, I know, and my church council knows what’s going on. I don’t perform same-sex weddings because it’s contrary to the rules of the church. Yes, I’m ignoring the position of my church that homosexual activity is contrary to scripture, but it’s not quite clear what one is supposed to do about that anyhow.”
“And what do you do with the clear teaching of scripture?” asked Jerry.
“Clear teaching of scripture? It is to laugh. I do the same thing about that as you do about the command not to eat shell fish or pig. I see you eating a hamburger every so often.”
“But Paul took a clear stance against homosexuality.”
“I don’t think it’s so clear as all that. Paul didn’t have a concept of someone being homosexual by nature. He spoke of doing things against nature. And few such relationships at the time could be considered consensual. So no, I don’t think the teaching of scripture is any clear than, say, the teaching of scripture on the ordination of women.” As he said the last, he looked Justine right in the eyes. “Yes,” he added, “I’m acquainted with Romans 1[:24-32], Jude around verse 7, 1 Timothy 1[:8-11], and 1 Corinthians 6[:9-11]. I just don’t think those refer to consenting relationships between people who are naturally attracted to persons of the same sex.”
Jerry looked back and forth between them. He couldn’t seem to figure out who to address. His problem was not confusion. He was stunned by this sweeping dismissal of clear scripture.
Justine responded first. “I understand how one might dismiss the Old Testament passages as part of the ceremonial law, though I think there are principles from us to learn from just about any of those laws. But I don’t think we can so easily dismiss the New Testament. And with Paul’s restatement of the prohibition, I think we draw the Old Testament passages back into the discussion.”
“I find it difficult to see how you draw in passages from the Torah into a modern discussion when the penalty involved was death. If the one part applies, why not the other? I mean, I sincerely hope there is nobody here who supports the death penalty for being gay.” Mandy again looked more serious than usual, and sounded more tense.
Nobody volunteered to support the death penalty.
Bob Norman took up the conversation. “There are people in the world, Christians, in fact, who do believe the death penalty should still apply. We’ve seen such laws proposed and some even passed in various African nations. We even have churches here in America who have ties to those who advocate those laws.”
“Yes,” said Mac. “Who here has condemned those laws and taken action against them?”
Both Mandy and Justine raised their hands, an act that seemed a bit ludicrous in the informal group.
Ellen broke in. “I’m wondering if Justine wouldn’t rather be talking about something else right now. I imagine she’s spent the last month or so talking about nothing else!”
“Oh, I want to talk about it. I wanted to talk about it in a group that was less inhibited. I like to really tear a subject apart. There’s no other way I can be sure I’m doing the best I can to understand and do the right thing.” Justine actually did look more relaxed than when she had arrived.
“OK,” said Mark. “I want to know what the two of you have done about these anti-gay laws in Africa.”
“I’ve written letters to church leaders supporting these moves, and contributed money to groups working to oppose them,” said Mandy.
“I’ve stuck to letter writing and I’ve condemned that attitude from the pulpit,” said Justine.
“But how can you?” asked Bob. “As I see it, those folks in Africa have the courage of your convictions and you don’t.”
“No, I have the courage of my convictions. They have the courage of theirs. I believe we no longer live in a theocracy. I believe we no longer live under the law. So I don’t have to apply a legal penalty to these actions. I opposed them because I believe they are destructive of a good and proper life in this world and they are destructive of people’s souls in the next.”
“Amen!” said Jerry again.
“What’s destructive is hate,” said Mandy.
“Hate? Do you really believe I hate gay people?” asked Justine.
“I don’t actually believe you hate, though it’s hard for me not to think so. If I didn’t know you so well, I’d mistake your attitude for hatred. The problem is that you enable people to hate by telling them that other people are less than you and I are.”
“But I say that everyone is a child of God. We are all the same before God.”
“But some of us can stand on the stage and play a guitar and others can’t.”
“My guitarist agreed to those rules.”
“He agreed to pretend.”
“You seem to think it was impossible for him to refrain from sexual activity. Did you not teach your own teenagers that they didn’t have to engage in sexual activity before marriage?” Justine and Mandy were now focused directly on one another.
“I did. But you keep missing the point. You require that a gay person deny who he is in order to fit into your world of what is permissible. It’s not that my children’s desires were evil in themselves, and I could point them to the legitimate time and manner in which they could be fulfilled. It’s not good to be alone—that comes from Genesis 2. But one of my children, my oldest daughter, is a lesbian. And I didn’t tell her that she was somehow less than a person, that she should be less fulfilled than the others when she came out to me.”
“Oh Mandy!” exclaimed Justine.
“Oh no you don’t!” exclaimed Mandy. “Don’t even think of being sympathetic, as though I was grieving about something! Not only do I love my oldest daughter unconditionally, I am proud of her in each and every way and I wish her and her future partner—she’s not in a major hurry, but I think there’s someone on the horizon—the very best. I will love them both in the same way. I’m incredibly blessed.”
There was another moment of silence.
Mandy grinned without much humor. “Afraid to continue the discussion considering someone has skin in the game, so to speak?”
“No,” said Jerry. “I still believe what I did. But I didn’t realize we were talking personally.”
“But that’s precisely the problem!” said Mandy. “You don’t talk personally, but people hear personally. We’re talking about real people. I’ve just made it more personal by revealing my daughter’s sexual orientation. And incidentally, I have permission to do so. She’s extremely open.”
“No idea where she gets that from,” said Mac to chuckles all around.
“OK, I’ll do what you suggest,” said Jerry. “I want to know what you do about the plain teaching of scripture. And despite the usual dismissal from Mark, I think scripture is rather clear.”
“I see it a bit differently than Mark does,” said Mandy. “I think the passages of scripture that are normally quoted are actually speaking against gays. What I believe is that those statements were not the end of the matter. God is still speaking. I think some church uses that as a motto, in fact [The United Church of Christ].”
“So God is now saying something completely different than he ever said before?” Jerry was very wary of the idea of God speaking in modern times. It was, in fact, one of his major issues with Justine.
“Of course God can say something different than he ever has before. Consider Isaiah 56:3-5 vs. Deuteronomy 23:1. In Deuteronomy a eunuch would be excluded from the congregation, but according to Isaiah, the day was coming when such would be welcomed.”
“Being a eunuch is not the same as homosexuality. The homosexual has a choice.”
“I’m not trying to compare the two. What I’m saying is that God can say one thing and then another. God may be unchanging but humanity and human circumstances are not. So God’s commands to us can change with our circumstances. I think that today the applicable scriptures dealing with LGBTQ persons are those that talk about supporting the downtrodden and proclaiming freedom. Contrary to you, and even Mark, I think it’s my duty to make it easier for my gay brothers and sisters to become a full part of the community. I would not be satisfied with pretending that ‘the problem’ doesn’t exist. It’s not a problem; it’s people. We, as Christians, should be all about proclaiming liberty to these captives. I don’t need to explain every scripture that applied to a particular time. The ethical teachings of Jesus lead this way inevitably.”
“I understand that this is an emotional issue for you, Mandy. It’s your daughter.”
“So first I’m inhibiting conversation because it’s personal, and now you inform me that the reason I believe what I believe is that I have a daughter who is a lesbian. How condescending! Have you asked yourself why my daughter was able to come to me and say, ‘Mom, I find that I’m attracted to other women.’ That was because she knew I would still treat her as my daughter and as an important human being.”
“I’m glad there are parents like you,” said Bob. “I have a student who was thrown out of his house after he came out. The things his parents said about him were terrible. He’s living with an uncle and aunt who are somewhat supportive.”
Justine looked back directly at Mandy. “So to you the only response is support. What would you say if your daughter came to you and said, ‘Mom, I find I just have to have cocaine in order to live.’?”
“That would be different, and I think you know it. She was not born a drug addict.”
“But that brings it back to the fundamental issue. I don’t think either Justine or I believe that this is either something someone is born with, nor do we believe it’s harmless,” said Jerry.
Justine nodded. “I know how everyone reacts, but in the end I have to go with what scripture teaches. I don’t think this is something we’re born with any more than any other tendency to sin. I believe it must be overcome in the same way. While I risk making people feel rejected when I reject their sin, I would be doing something even worse if I condone something that is harmful to them and to their immortal soul.”
“I agree,” said Jerry. “It sounds easier to go along with what society is doing. Face it, that’s what’s happening. Society accepts homosexuals, so we in the church decide we have to do it. But it’s not the right thing to do. It’s not the loving thing to do. Even though others proclaim their love for this guitarist in Justine’s church, Justine is the one who really does love him. She loves him enough to rebuke his sin.”
“And this is why,” said Bob, “that I oppose religion so strongly. Even when Mandy comes to a very good conclusion from a human point of view, there’s plenty of scripture to support the much more dangerous attitudes of Justine and Jerry. I just don’t think religion is safe.”
“Even I don’t think religion is safe,” said Mandy. “I think it’s important. I think there really is a God. But ‘safe’ is not a word I’d use for it. Then again, I don’t think atheism is ‘safe’ either. In fact, Bob Norman, you live in a dangerous world!”
“OK,” said Mac. “Let’s not go down that road any further. We’ve already torn up one subject for the day.”
“I want to know what’s been happening in Mark’s life. We haven’t heard from him in two years!” This was Ellen, diverting hostility as she often did.
“Well, I was sent for a year and a half to be an associate in a large church, and then just a month ago, the pastor of a church about 20 miles north of here died, and I was called to take his place. So I’ll be in the area for some time.”
“Excellent!” said Ellen. “Then we can see one another more regularly!”
“Always provided Justine and Jerry want to get beat up,” said Bob darkly.
“You think we got beat up?” asked Justine. “I think it depends on your point of view. Jerry and I have stood for what we believe, based on the Bible, which is the source of our beliefs. So I, at least, am fine with the discussion.”
“And,” said Mark, “that means Justine thinks Mandy and I are ignoring scripture. Each in our own way, of course!”
“You are,” said Jerry, but in the tone of someone who knew the subject had run its course for the evening.
“Same time, same channel?” asked Ellen.
“I’m game,” said Mandy.
And so the revival of the God-Talk Club was accomplished.