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.
Jerry Simonson lowered himself gingerly into the overstuffed chair. He was wondering whether it was safe or sanitary. He shouldn’t have. The decor of The Roadside Cafe may have looked like a cross between accidental and tornado aftermath, but it was a decor that was carefully maintained. It was more likely that the owner had purchased a new chair and carefully made it look scruffy, without damaging it in any important way, than that he would put in anything dangerous.
And here was the new manager, Ellen, who had been a waitress here since the first time Jerry had been in the place. One of his great sorrows was that she remained a loyal member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints despite his best efforts to witness to her about the gospel in the orthodox form in which he knew it. She personally handed him his drink. She didn’t have to do that now that she managed the place. The owner only checked on her every few weeks. Ellen ran the cafe, and business was booming.
“Hi Jerry,” she said with her usual cheerful smile. She’d gotten married about six months before, and married life clearly agreed with her.
“Hello, Ellen. Still keeping busy around here?”
“Busy?” Ellen laughed. “This place practically runs itself.”
“I doubt that,” said Jerry.
“I’m very good at my job, so it looks that way,” said Ellen, grinning.
“How do you manage to keep this place looking so, ummm, accidental?”
“Now that would be telling, wouldn’t it?”
“Perhaps. I miss the old gang. Everyone moved away bit by bit.”
“Well, not everyone. Justine is still in town, but I think she got too busy. And, I think, afraid to be seen in public. Too many people want to talk to her. But I have news!”
“You’re going to see her tonight!” Ellen looked delighted. She had probably forgotten how hard a time Jerry had dealing with Justine, now Dr. Justine Reeder with a brand new diploma from the seminary testifying to the fact that she had earned a Doctor of Ministry degree. And while she had worked her way through the seminary, first earning her MDiv and now this DMin, she had been growing the tiny, independent, charismatic congregation she pastored into one of the largest churches in the city. In fact, the church had moved into a new facility less than a year before.
“How do you know that?”
“She called me. She wanted to get out of the pressure cooker. She wondered if the atmosphere was still the same. I assured her it was.” She paused. “Now don’t you go attacking her because she’s a woman preacher. She’s a godly woman even if she is somewhat misguided.”
Jerry didn’t know exactly how to handle that. To him Ellen was more misguided than Justine, even though he actually found himself more offended by Justine, since, with that Doctor of Ministry degree and at least a passable knowledge of scripture, she should have known better. “It will be nice to see her,” he said after a pause.
“You don’t know what’s been going on?” asked Ellen.
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about.”
“It was Justine’s church that fired that gay guitarist.”
The story came back. In fact, his pastor had talked about it from the pulpit, but he hadn’t identified the church. So that was Justine Reeder. Well, at least she hadn’t compromised completely on the issue of homosexuality. He remembered his pastor’s statement. By allowing openly gay people to be members of the church, the door had been opened to more problems. The lesson his pastor had drawn from this was that any compromise just led to more compromise. Jerry was trying to remember precisely what had happened, but he couldn’t recall the details. He didn’t want to ask Ellen. Despite his disagreement with Justine on the issue of women in ministry and the gifts of the Spirit in the modern church, she was an orthodox Christian on the major doctrines—Trinity, Incarnation, bodily resurrection, the inerrancy of scripture, and salvation by grace even if she did put an Arminian twist on it. So he didn’t ask.
“Oh,” he said. “I hadn’t realized it was her church.”
Ellen just looked at him. Sometimes Jerry could be so … so closed and narrow in his vision. Despite their differences in doctrine, Ellen genuinely liked Justine and was disappointed that she had come to the cafe less and less as her church had grown.
“And how’s my favorite killjoy?” Jerry barely had time to recognize the voice before he felt an arm go around his neck and hug him as much as it was possible in that position. Then the woman herself bounced over to a nearby hassock and perched on it cross-legged.
“I’m doing fine,” said Jerry. A woman in her 40s had no business looking that good. Definitely no business perching cross-legged on a hassock. Where should he put his eyes? Staring her in the face seemed to be the only option.
“Ah, ‘fine’ he grates out, not at all happy to see me.”
“I am happy to see you.”
“Ah, I see. ‘By faith Jerry Simonson received Mandy Kelly without insulting her’,” Mandy paraphrased.
Ellen had never figured out whether Mandy knew how much she bothered Jerry. Mandy tended, despite her years, to seem young and innocent. She hardly could be, considering she had four children herself and an apparently happy home. She hadn’t been in the cafe for a couple of years, however.
“So what’s been keeping you away?” asked Jerry.
“Doctoral studies. I’ve been writing a dissertation. I successfully defended it last month.”
“What was the subject?”
“Technology education. I’ve been doing consulting with several companies.”
“Still homeschooling your children?”
“Absolutely! Well, except for Emma who is 19 now, and pretty much on her own. She has already completed a degree with a double major in information technology and psychology.”
“Congratulations!” Jerry was truly impressed.
“Wow! That’s wonderful!” said Ellen. “I’ve always so admired you and the way you raise your family.”
“It works for me,” said Mandy. She was aware that homeschooling didn’t work for everyone, but she had been 100% successful by just about any measure of success she could think of.
“So what brings you here tonight?” asked Jerry after a pause.
“I’m planning to annoy Justine,” said Mandy with a grin.
“Oh please!” said Ellen. “Justine needs some peace.”
“On the contrary,” said Mandy. “Justine is spoiling for a fight. She just wants to do it with folks who are straightforward and friendly, even when they disagree. I’m guessing you’ll be on Justine’s side this time, Jerry.”
“You mean about homosexuality?”
“Yes, the gay guitarist.” Mandy rolled her eyes a bit.
“The gay guitarist?” asked someone new. It was another of the old regulars, Mark Morton. Mark had completed his MDiv, and then, with exceptions made to all the rules, his DMin from the seminary. Then he’d left to take up his first pastoral position.
“Yes,” said Mandy. “Justine fired a gay guitarist from her praise band. Oh, and welcome back. I guess you’re now the Rev. Dr. Mark Morton.”
“Mark will do fine,” said the Reverend Doctor. But one could tell he was pleased at the acknowledgment of his accomplishments.
“Let’s be accurate,” said Ellen. “Since Justine’s church doesn’t hire musicians, Justine didn’t actually fire the guitarist. She said he could no longer play in the band until he was in compliance with the moral standards of the church.”
“So he can return whenever he’s no longer gay?” It was another newcomer, though Ellen still saw Bob Norman frequently. He just hadn’t been part of their group discussions for some time.
“Actually,” said Ellen again, “it seems none of you have really followed this. Justine’s church does not say that being gay is contrary to the church standards. Sex outside of marriage is. The guitarist admitted he was sexually active and living with his same-sex partner.”
“But of course he can’t get married, so, unlike heterosexual couples, his only option is celibacy. Besides, I wonder if people would have been so quick to gossip about his situation if he had been straight and living with his girlfriend. Would they have even noticed?” This was Mandy.
“Which shows that your religious rules are nonsense.” Bob’s tone was that of one giving the final conclusion. “Why you religious people feel you have to regulate people’s sex lives so much is beyond me. Jerry here probably thinks the kid should be stoned too, and I mean with rocks, not the good stuff.” He laughed at his own joke, but he was the only one.
“Stoning?” It was a slight drawl, and it announced the arrival of Rev. Justine Reeder. “I reserve that punishment for true infidels!”
There were a few more chuckles this time. “Well, with your outdated and unenlightened view of human sexuality, it’s only a small step further.” It was typical of the group that Justine’s gibe about stoning infidels was ignored.
“On the contrary, I think it’s a huge step, and considering there are people who actually advocate taking that step, I think it’s appropriate for me to distinguish myself from them. I asked one young man not to participate in the band at church because he was not living up to the moral standards of our congregation. I didn’t ask him to leave. I didn’t take away his right to free speech, and I definitely did not in any way threaten his life.”
“And if he now spirals into depression because he has been rejected, what then?” asked Mandy.
“I will offer to be there for him at any time. I have told him that I continue to love him as a person and to pray for him. I have admonished our congregation not to use derogatory terms for gays or lesbians, but to treat them as persons Jesus died to redeem. I don’t hate him. I do think he has made choices that will, ultimately, hurt him and others. Those choices are not my doing.”
“So, to summarize, if he commits suicide it’s not your fault,” said Bob.
“It’s not my fault, though it would bother me a great deal, yet that is not the most important thing I said. The most important thing I said was that I would continue to love him and treat him with respect.”
“But he can’t play his guitar, exercise his gift for music, in your congregation. If he stays there, he must remain cut off from part of who he is.” Mandy looked to Jerry more serious than he had ever known her to be. Now he knew where she stood on this issue.
“True. But there I have other responsibilities,” said Justine.
“To protect people from what this young man does in the privacy of his own home?” It was Mac Strong, meaning the whole group was back again.
“Unlike you,” said Justine, “I believe that homosexuality is a destructive behavior that is the result of sin in the world. So I do believe it is important to protect people from it.”
“You think people will be influenced to be gay?”
“I think people will be influenced to give in to impulses to sin. We all have impulses to sin. People have impulses that would lead them to sex outside of marriage. That’s a destructive behavior, I believe, and so our church standards say that sex should be reserved for marriage. Our rules say that if you want to be in a position of leadership, you agree to live up to those standards. I see no reason to treat a same-sex attraction differently.”
“Except that you require that there be no legitimate outlet for those whose attractions are same-sex.”
“Yes, if one has only same-sex attractions, then the call of God is to celibacy.”
“Amen!” said Jerry.
“I knew you’d agree, though I believe your pastor would prefer we kept gay people out of the congregation.”
“He draws the line at church membership. If you are to be a member you agree to live up to the church’s standards. He, and I also, believe that you open yourself to more trouble by allowing church membership to those who refuse to live up to biblical standards.”
“Such as gossips?” said Mandy.
“I don’t know what gossip has to do with it,” said Jerry.
“The gossip that led Justine to discover that her gay guitarist was living with a partner.”
“I don’t see it as gossip,” said Justine. “People who were concerned with the reputation of the church and the influence on the young people informed church leadership of a problem. We dealt with it.”
“Ah,” said Mac, “I think I get it. There’s reporting and then there’s gossip. When you report what someone is doing in order to get them into trouble, you’re doing a service. When you report someone just because it’s interesting, you’re a gossip.”
“I would say, rather, that when one reports things that need to be reported, and does so to the proper authorities, that person is not gossiping. When one simply talks about other people, with no real concern for the truth, then that’s gossip.” Jerry spoke slowly and deliberately, trying to catch the loopholes.
“But what I wonder,” said Mark, “is whether you allow gossips to be members of your church.”
“I know we have gossips in ours,” said Justine, “but if someone persists in such behavior while in a position of leadership, he or she would be removed.”
“And how many times has this happened?” asked Bob. “I’m just checking on your consistency.”
“I’ve had to admonish people for gossiping several times. I’ve never had someone who persisted.”
“So let me get this straight,” Bob continued. “You would have admonished your guitarist, I mean, told him that he had to cease living and/or having sexual relations with his partner, and he decided to ignore you, so he was removed. What if he said he’d stop?”
“That’s more or less it. There’s behavior that is not permitted in the leadership of our church. If anyone says that they will return to complying with our church standards, I believe them. Repeated offenses would be another matter.”
“So, Mark, what do you think about this?” asked Mac. She’d always wondered about Mark, who never seemed to be very rooted. Here he was a pastor, and she couldn’t have told you three things he believed for certain. She even had her moments of wondering whether he believed in God.
“We generally ignore it,” said Mark.
“Ignore it?” said several people at once.
“Yes. We don’t announce that we’re accepting gay people into our church’s leadership, but we go ahead and do it. Under the rules of my church I can’t perform a gay wedding, but I don’t have to take official notice of someone’s sexuality in church.”
“Amazing!” said Jerry. “You just ignore a major swath of morality and pretend it’s not a problem.”
He wasn’t sure whether he was awake or not. He might have been dreaming. He might have been in that sort of half-way state some people experience when just waking up. But right across from his recliner, sitting there on the couch, was a man.
The man looked a little bit like his buddy Fred. Ordinary clothes, slouched a bit. Relaxed. His imagination kept trying to tell him this was Jesus, but he couldn’t figure out why.
“The problem,” said the man on the couch, “is that you are much too focused on the church.”
“I’m a pastor. I’m supposed to be focused on my church.”
“I don’t mean the people. I mean the building.”
“But the people need the building.”
There was a long pause.
“Take this new education wing,” said the man on the couch.
“That’s the problem. I can’t ‘take’ it because I can’t get it built!”
“Yes. You’ve been praying about that. You’ve been asking God to help you get the money to start building it. But are you sure you need it?”
“I have new Sunday School classes cropping up. We can actually overbook our rooms just with committee meetings. The church is growing! We need room!” He didn’t know why he was arguing with the man on his couch. He just couldn’t stop.
“There are other times, whole days, when the church is entirely empty.”
“Well, we have to meet people’s schedules.”
“People have homes.”
“You mean we should hold committee meetings in people’s homes?”
“I suppose that would work. You might try less committee meetings. For example, think of the last meeting of the trustees.”
“I’d rather not.” He sighed. The trustees’ meeting had lasted nearly three hours and then they’d agreed to restudy everything and meet again.
“Yeah. It was a waste of time, wasn’t it?”
“I just don’t know how to make it work.”
“That’s true. That’s why you’re such a wonderful pastor. One of the reasons, at least.”
“I don’t feel very wonderful.”
“No. You can’t get things moving. Did you know that you have one of the most active congregations in the city?”
“No. I never checked.”
“Another reason I like you.”
“But I can’t get this new building program off the ground. It’s like we grew to fill the space, and then we can’t get over the next hill.”
“Maybe the next hill is over there.” The man on the couch was pointing out the window.
“Over where?” He looked out the window. The city was out there.
“How many members do you have who have homes large enough to hold a Sunday School class?”
“I don’t know. I’d guess a hundred or more.” He wondered about the non-sequitur. The number of people with large enough houses wouldn’t be a where.
“There. Those homes.”
“But they’re all over the city! We have members coming from everywhere!”
“Just so! What an opportunity!”
“They could invite their neighbors. ALL. OVER. THE. CITY!”
He stared blankly at the man on the couch. “I don’t think they’d do it.”
“When you needed to buy instruments for your praise band, what did you do?”
“I prayed. I taught a series on worship.”
“And when you needed people to be more welcoming to those who came onto the church property, what did you do?”
“I prayed. I taught a series about hospitality in the church. Then I twisted some arms.”
“And it worked. You have the fastest growing church of any denomination (or not) in your city. Now maybe you need to teach about hospitality in the home.”
He looked at the man on the couch. “People meeting in their own homes on Sunday morning? But they couldn’t get to church!”
“Ah. They wouldn’t get to hear your sermon.”
“You sound sarcastic. I put a great deal of work into my sermons.”
“You do. It’s commendable. But what would happen if you taught a bunch of those lay people—a hundred or more, I think you said—to offer a message from God’s Word themselves? Do you think you could teach someone else to do some teaching?”
“We could use technology. Pipe the sermon in over the internet.”
“You could. Or you could equip all those people to share God’s Word. Or some of each. You could even do some of the equipping over the internet!”
“Be careful what you pray for.”
“I was praying for a new education wing.”
“Now you’re going to pray for a hundred or more education centers.”
“How do you know that?”
“I know you. Once you’ve got the vision, you just can’t stop yourself, even though you try.”
He looked around again. There was no man on the couch. He wasn’t sure if he was awake or asleep. The idea of merely raising funds for an education wing now looked easy. And he wasn’t going to do that. He could just imagine the trustees’ reaction when he said that people were going to be meeting for church in their homes. Insurance? Budgets? Maintenance? Liability? More than a hundred centers of witness.
Fun, he thought. He liked trying to do something real!
He was trying to pray, but it wasn’t easy. He’d climbed for hours into the mountains. He didn’t really believe that climbing a mountain would bring him closer to God. At least not consciously. But he wanted to get through. He had a complaint. God needed to hear him and he needed to know God had heard him.
He sat down on a rock. He didn’t know how high up he was. He thought maybe the air was thinner. Had he climbed high enough to notice such a thing? He didn’t know.
He looked up at the sky and started his complaint. He’d worked it out in his mind. It was a complaint, but a very polite one.
“Oh Lord, Creator of the Universe, Bringer of all good things, I do thank You for all Your many blessings. I believe Your Word, I trust You.”
“Who are you talking to?” said a voice. It might have been the wind. It might have been in his head. But it was real enough that he looked around. Must be my imagination, he thought.
“I believe that You reward those who do Your will, and punish those who do evil.”
“No you don’t,” said the voice. “And I still wonder who you’re talking to. I hear all those capital letters, ‘You’ and ‘Your’.”
How can one hear capital letters? he thought.
“It’s the way you say them. I can tell you’d capitalize them if you wrote them. You’d see it as a sign of respect. But I notice you didn’t respond to my most important comment.”
He was startled that he got an answer when he just thought. “But I do believe God rewards good and punishes evil!”
“It’s interesting that you speak so courteously, and yet you’re not afraid to lie to me.”
“I’m not lying!” He hesitated. “Are you claiming to be God?”
“Who’s claiming anything? Do you see anyone around here other than yourself? You left the sane people behind several miles back!”
He looked around. Indeed, he saw nobody but himself. Even the trees were sparse and stunted. He must have walked further than he had planned. “But you said I was lying!” His voice hardened with anger.
“Aha! Honest words! Honest emotion! I said you were lying because you were. You do not believe that I reward good and punish evil. In fact, that’s why you’re up in this God-forsaken (you should pardon the expression, but you were thinking it!) place. You think you have been treated unfairly.”
He forgot to argue about who the voice was. “But I have been treated unfairly!” he exclaimed. “All my life I have done what was right. I have submitted to the authority of your ministers. I have lived a good life. I have caused no trouble. Yet I have next to nothing. No reward. I’ve been a good man. I should be rewarded!”
“Well, that’s more honest. Not actually honest, but better. It might seem that with a wife, four children, a dozen grandchildren, a successful business, and the acceptance of your neighbors you would be satisfied.”
“How do you know all those things?”
“I’m just a voice in your head, after all.”
“I didn’t say that!”
“You were thinking it.”
There was a pause. He wasn’t going to win that one. He had been thinking it was just a voice in his head. “And my neighbors don’t just accept me. They respect me.”
“No, actually they don’t. I would say you’re lying, but in this case you’ve lied to yourself so often that you think you’re telling the truth. Your neighbors just think you’re safe. That you won’t do anything unexpected. That you won’t rock the boat.”
“Well, doesn’t that make me a good neighbor?”
“Sometimes the boat needs rocking. Sometimes it needs to be turned over.”
“That sounds dangerous.”
“Actually living is dangerous.”
He was thinking this conversation was dangerous, and he didn’t like dangerous things. He had a habit with conversations like this. He’d direct them to what he called “the subject at hand,” which was always something safe. “In any case,” he said out loud, “I came here to pray and I was trying to pray.”
“What do you think you’re doing?”
“Holding a conversation with a voice,” he said testily, then went on. “But Lord, you rule the heavens, and I need you to look at my enemy, my nemesis, Jason. He’s a troublemaker, yet he has a major following. He has a good job and lots of money, and people follow him. In fact, he’s trying to change my church …”
“My church,” said the voice.
“Yes, my church.”
“No,” said the voice. “It’s My church. Hear the capital letter in my voice. My church. Mine. All Mine! Not yours.” Somehow the voice didn’t sound petulant saying it. Just calm and factual.
“I’m trying to pray here,” he said.
“And I’m trying to answer a prayer,” said the voice. “Like I said, look around. Who’s making claims?”
“Are you God?” There was a pause. “Speaking to me?”
“What do you think?”
“I think I’m crazy.”
“You could go talk to a counselor. Get the voice suppressed or removed.”
“What? Go to a counselor and say, ‘A voice told me to come to you so I wouldn’t hear it any more?’ Wouldn’t that be crazier than average?”
“You’re the guy who’s climbed a mountain for hours and brought himself close to a heart attack—you ought to exercise more—in order to get closer to God. And you don’t even really believe in God.”
“What? I’m a believer. I’ve believed all my life!”
“Of course, in God.”
“And what have I done, according to you, up to now.”
There was silence for several minutes.
“Can’t really think of anything, can you?”
“Well, you’re the creator of the universe, right?”
“I am. Do you really believe it? Or is it just a default that you know you’re supposed to believe.”
“I never really thought about it. The pastor preached it, I believed it.”
“The pastor preached it, you ignored it.”
“What was I supposed to do about it?”
“What about when the creation care folks came to the church. What did you do?”
“Are you on the side of the creation care people?”
“I’m not really on anybody’s side. I ask people to be on mine. Answer the question! What did you do?”
“I proposed the compromise vote by which the church agreed to pass a resolution saying that we should take care of God’s world.”
“But your resolution didn’t involve doing anything, right?”
“Well, no. That was the point. Anything we did would cause a fight in the church. So I made peace. ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’, right?”
“‘I came not to bring peace, but a sword’.”
“You wanted a church fight?”
“I’m asking the questions. Most of them, at least. So what about when your church voted on the new building project? What did you do then?”
“I suggested that we wait until we had the funds.”
“And did the funds ever come in?”
“So you killed that one too.”
“Did you want the church to add on a building?”
“No, not particularly. I can answer that one. But you didn’t pay any attention. Now Jason. He led the fight for the extension.”
“Yes, and people loved him for it. They wanted that building and he was their leader.”
“People respected him, loved him.”
“Yes! That’s the problem, Lord. I believe in you. I do good things. Yet Jason gets the rewards.”
“What do you believe about me? What good things have you done?”
There was another pause. He was trying to think of what to say. Obviously, keeping the peace in the church didn’t work.
“What you have,” said the voice, “is the natural result of the way you lived your life.”
“Isn’t it your blessing or curse?”
“Only in the sense that I created everything, and quite often, you reap what you sow.”
“But what about Job? Did he reap what he sowed?”
“No. Sometimes it doesn’t work that way. Sometimes you reap what others sow. Sometimes you don’t know what’s going on in the background. But you’re not Job. You’re not suffering.”
“Yes I am! Just look at what you’re doing for that Jason character, and he’s even been in prison before. He gets the respect, the money, the easy life, and I don’t. He’s a sinner, a troublemaker, and you keep blessing him!”
“So your problem is not what I do for you, it’s that you think I’m doing better things for someone else?”
“Yes! No! I mean I’ve been a better person than Jason, and he gets the better blessings.”
“So, let’s say that Jason falls on hard times, would that make you happy?”
There was another pause.
“You don’t want to say it, but I can hear it in your mind. You’d deny it, but you’d gloat if Jason fell on hard times.”
“But he’s a troublemaker.”
“Jason is a man of action. He’s often wrong, but never quiet, never apathetic.”
Another pause. “And me?” He almost said “Lord” after that.
“You? You’re boring. You avoid trouble even when trouble is needed. Then you complain about the people who are making a difference.”
“So you think Jason is right more often than I am.”
“Quite the contrary. You’re often right but never active.”
“So right and wrong doesn’t matter?”
“Oh, it matters. But what matters first is caring and acting. If you’re right but inactive it’s not much good. Oh, and people don’t always get what they deserve. Remember that. It’s just that in your case, you’ve pretty much gotten what you deserve, just proving that humans will complain about fairness too.”
“So I really did hear from God up on this mountain?”
“You don’t need to believe that,” said the voice. “Maybe you just got too high up and the air is thin. Why don’t you hike down a ways. But slowly. Your heart isn’t really up to all this.”
The first pastor was annoyed and impatient during Miriam’s visit. He had a large and active church, and had thought he was making an appointment to talk to a member about some church problem. When she asked for the appointment, Miriam had said, “It’s about a problem and what the church can do about it.” The secretary had written “church problem” in the little text field on her computer marked “Reason for Appointment” and that was that.
“I was reading in my Bible,” said Miriam, “and I came to a story. It says here that Jesus fed 5,000 people.”
“It’s good to read your Bible,” said the pastor in a neutral tone of voice. He claimed to want people to study their Bibles. In fact, he thought the ones that did it on their own, apart from church curriculum, came up with too many weird ideas. The girl in front of him (what had possessed the secretary to give him an appointment with a teenager?) looked like weird ideas, probably wild ones, were very likely. She had several extra piercings in her ears, one in her lip, and a tattoo on her shoulder that he couldn’t identify, but which gave him the feeling that it was unchristian. She was considered pretty conservative by her crowd at school, but the pastor was unacquainted with her crowd.
“Yes,” said Maria. “It’s been helping me in my study of English literature, but that’s not what I’m here about.”
The pastor was a little annoyed. Literature? Then why’s she seeing me? he thought. But he pasted a questioning look on his face.
Encouraged by this, Miriam continued. “But in the middle of the story, Jesus tells the disciples to give the people something to eat. Now either he was screwing with their heads, or he thought they should have been able to do something about it, if they just wanted to badly enough. Maybe he thought they should have planned ahead to bring enough food. I don’t know.
“But he says it, ‘You give them something to eat’.”
“Jesus could perform a miracle and feed all those people. We can’t. It would take resources.”
“Yes,” said Miriam. “I can see that. You think Jesus was screwing with their heads.” The pastor couldn’t control the look of distaste that crossed his face. Using the phrase “screwing with their heads” in connection with Jesus just didn’t sound properly respectful. Miriam continued, “I don’t think Jesus was screwing with their heads. I think he wanted them to think about things like that. I think he wanted them to be ready to feed people.”
“You’re not a member of our church, are you?”
Miriam paused and looked puzzled at this apparent non sequitur. (She knew what a non sequitur was. She’d looked it up in English class.) “No,” she said. “I’m not.”
“Where do you go to church?”
“I don’t. My parents aren’t church people.”
“Well, perhaps you should. Then we could teach you how to understand these difficult passages of scripture. Then you could take these questions to your pastor.” He emphasized the pronoun slightly. On the one hand, he wanted to bring in new members. On the other, he thought this one was a troublemaker, and perhaps someone else could be her pastor. He wasn’t sure how old she was. He guessed 16 or so.
“I don’t see what’s so difficult about it. It seems that Jesus doesn’t like people going hungry. It seems like he told his disciples to feed them. When they didn’t, he made it happen. I understand it’s just a story, but stories have meaning too.”
“Well, you can’t take these stories too literally.”
“I’m not taking it literally. I don’t believe that Jesus actually miraculously fed 5,000 people. I don’t believe in that sort of miracle. I believe in the story. ‘You give them something to eat.’ I thought you would too.”
“I would really like to have a chance to teach you some more about the Bible,” lied the pastor. In fact, he really hoped someone else would deal with this girl. “For example, Jesus really did feed 5,000 people. It happened! But right now I don’t have the time. I have another appointment coming up.”
Miriam knew he was lying. She knew how to make appointments and had specifically asked for half an hour. “So,” she said, “you do believe in the miracle, but not in the story.” She jumped up and was gone in a moment.
The second pastor was a known activist. She thought he was more likely to be sympathetic. She’d had some idea that people might not like the fact that she didn’t believe the miracles. Didn’t, and couldn’t. She just couldn’t make herself accept the supernatural. But she was surprised that the first pastor didn’t believe the rest!
“It’s a complex issue,” said the pastor. He was not put off by her clothing or manner. He did, in fact, associate with people her age. Like her crowd at school, he thought she was a bit conservative.
“What’s complex about it? ‘You give them something to eat.'”
“Well, that’s the story, that’s the myth. It drives us. But when we are driven toward the right goal by the story, we discover that there is much more to it than that.”
“So Jesus was a bit simple minded? I mean in the story. You know I don’t believe in the miracle.”
“Simple minded? No! He was pointing the way.”
“But a way that doesn’t really work, right?”
“No, it can work, but it’s more complex. You wouldn’t understand these things yet. You’re young and idealistic. That’s good! Enjoy it while you can! But when you start working on these problems in more detail you’ll find it’s much more difficult than just saying ‘give them something to eat’. There are structural issues, the way that the entire system is biased in favor of the rich over the poor, the way food is produced and distributed. One person or one church cannot solve the problem. We need society-wide, even worldwide solutions for problems like this.” He could remember when he had felt much like the girl did, but thousands of disappointments along the way had polished off the rough edges. He much preferred “polished off the rough edges” to “made him cynical.”
“I see. The bottom line still seems to be that the story doesn’t work.”
After that the conversation dwindled, though they parted more amicably than she had with the first pastor.
The third pastor didn’t like the idea of feeding the hungry that much. Of course he gave it lip service. His congregation would provide food for the needy at Christmas. They had lunches to give out from time to time to homeless people, but the general idea of feeding the hungry, especially if one didn’t limit it properly, didn’t sound right. Besides, his task was to spread the gospel.
“You have to understand that this is a metaphor,” he told the girl.
“You mean you don’t believe it either,” she replied. He was surprised at her look of disappointment, and by the suggestion that she had asked others.
“Of course I believe it! Jesus performed miracles. Never doubt that!”
“Actually, I don’t believe in the miracle. I believe in the story. ‘You give them something to eat.’ That’s where it leads me every time I read it.”
“Well, yes, but the miracle is required to fulfil that command. How could the disciples have fed all those people?”
“So you also believe Jesus was screwing with their heads.”
“Jesus did not mess with people’s heads!” declared the pastor. He wasn’t going to use the word “screw” in connection with Jesus. Miriam just sat there with raised eyebrows.
“As I said, it’s a metaphor. Even the miracle is a metaphor. It really happened, but it’s pointing to something else. That bread represents God’s word that we give to the people. ‘You give them something to eat’ means that we’re supposed to give people the word of the gospel, the good news that Jesus died to save them from hell.”
Miriam looked at him for a few moments. “I really think you ought to read your Bible more,” she said. “I think you’d find out that Jesus screwed with lots of people’s heads!”
And she was up and out the door, waving and saying a friendly sound “bye!” as she stepped out the door.
The pastor shook his head. “Young people today!” he said to the empty room.
The fourth pastor called Miriam the whore of Babylon, but he didn’t count.
The fifth, sixth, and seventh wanted her to invite her parents to church. If she could only get her parents to attend, they would be glad to get her in touch with the right committee — well, the sixth pastor called it a team — who would be happy to work with her on a mission project, one suitable for the youth, of course.
The eighth pastor referred her to the youth director who invited her to youth sports night. “You could make some friends, and then maybe you could think of a project together. We might even be able to deliver lunches to some shut-ins.”
Miriam thought delivering lunches to shut-ins sounded like an excellent idea, but couldn’t figure out why she had to go to sports night and make more friends before she did it. She had lots of friends.
And that was her moment of epiphany. She had lots of friends. She made them easily. She wasn’t an obvious social leader, but lots of people listened to her, because they thought she often had good ideas. She knew how to have fun without getting into trouble. Not that she didn’t cross the line, but she seemed to know how to do it without getting caught or, if caught, getting into too much trouble.
So the next day as lunch hour was about over, she jumped up on a table at school and yelled, “Listen up, everyone!”
This started a chain of events with the staff, one of whom decided not to try to deal with this herself, and so called in the assistant principal.
Silence descended on the lunch room, which was, in itself, a miracle. This occurred to Miriam and she grinned before she started to speak.
“I’ve been reading my Bible, because it relates to literature class.”
Oh no, thought the one teacher in the room. She’s become a religious nut and she’s going to preach, and we’re all going to get into trouble.
“I came to this story about Jesus feeding 5,000 people. Now I know some of you believe and some of you don’t. As for me, I don’t really, not in the miracle. But the story is good. In the story Jesus cares about those people and he tells his disciples — that’s followers — ‘you give them something to eat.’ Now I’ve been talking to pastors around town, and it seems that they think this is all crap as well. The story, I mean. They believe in the miracle, but it’s just this thing that happened. I believe in the story.”
The assistant principal walked into the room. He was trying to decide what to do, but the nature of the speech shocked him.
“Now some people think it’s too hard. We can’t feed people. All the people. Everyone who needs it. But look around. We’re going to throw enough food away to feed a whole other school. This is a good neighborhood. Most of our parents have money. Those churches I visited, they have big buildings, lots of resources.
“But none of them believe. They don’t believe this can be done. Well, I believe it can. Just for our town. Maybe even for this county. We could have a whole county where nobody went hungry. And even if these other people are right and we can’t take care of everyone, we can make sure it’s a lot less. Less hungry people, I mean.
“Is anyone with me?”
The assistant principal just kept watching. On the one hand it was his duty to keep students from disrupting the school. Miriam was definitely out of line. Based on what he had heard and what the teacher had whispered to him, he wasn’t sure whether he was going to be accused of attacking religion or promoting it. On the other hand, he had been called out of a session with a couple of students who didn’t care about anything. Wasn’t this something good?
“My dad owns the grocery store down on 10th Avenue,” said one student.
“My mom works for …”
“My grandfather was talking just the other day about how hard it was to find a place where he could be sure his money would be spent well if he gave it …”
One of Miriam’s friends started taking notes.
The assistant principal wasn’t sure if he was witnessing a miracle, getting himself and the whole school into incredible trouble, or letting his authority seep through the cracks, never to return.
Suddenly Miriam looked at the clock. “Lunch hour’s over,” she said with another brilliant smile. Then she looked at the assistant principal. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll go to your office peacefully!”
You give them something to eat. — Matthew 14:16 (from Lectionary Proper 13A, Matthew 14:13-21)
When he turned 40, Kenneth began to feel that something was missing in his life. Oh, he wasn’t a lost soul. He didn’t feel a need to find himself, whatever that might mean. He just felt that there was some thing, or perhaps some person, which (or who) would make his life more complete. Something was missing and he needed to find it.
It took him months to come to what was, for others, the obvious conclusion. He needed to find his birth father. Now Kenneth had a good life. His parents were loving. He had not lacked for anything. He wasn’t enormously rich, but he was well off, and didn’t feel any financial needs. He was married, and his wife and children constituted, as far as he could tell, the perfect family. Yes, there were conflicts. There was drama. But everything always worked out in the end, and he thought that was fine.
His parents — he didn’t think of his dad as a stepdad, though he was — were involved in his life, but not too involved. They seemed to be careful to behave in just the right way for parents of an adult son with his own business and his own family. Yet when he mentioned searching for his birth father they seemed stressed, even though they didn’t tell him not to do it. So he decided to make the search quietly.
The story he had known all his life was that his father abandoned him as an infant and had never been heard from again. His stepdad had stepped in, as his title implied, and had provided for Kenneth all his life.
The search itself took months. You may think that all the fun in this story would happen during the search. But it was really quite uneventful. Private investigators interviewed people and found documents. Nobody tried to kill them. Nobody threatened anybody. His parents didn’t come and tell him not to look.
In the end, however, the search ended with a birth record in a small hospital and the name of a man who was now dead. There was no information even on where that man might be buried.
Kenneth still felt that something was missing. And now he was sure it was his birth father. Why couldn’t he even find a grave marker?
A continent away in the penthouse suite of a luxury hotel, Gary looked at another report. (He hadn’t been called by his first name for years. He was Mr. Adamson to everyone. He was a powerful man.) He too had been searching, and since he was very, very rich he had more resources at his command than Kenneth. For nearly 40 years he had wondered where his son was. If his wife had lived, the search would have been a priority, but the police had searched diligently at the time, and he hadn’t seen any reason to try some more. Doubtless little Vincent had been killed years ago. His wife had also died a couple of years after their son went missing.
For weeks Gary had known where his missing son was. But when he’d looked at that perfect life, he had wondered whether he had a right to change it. His wife would have had no doubt, he knew. They’d be on the private jet that was waiting at the airport as fast as they could pack an overnight bag and they’d be talking to that son. But he wasn’t sure.
But this report changed things. His son was looking for him. His son wanted to know who he was.
He pressed an intercom button. “Get the jet ready …”
And now the question: Who was lost, and who was found?
“Your youth group is a miserable shadow of the one we had when Fred Martenson was our youth pastor!”
The words rang in David’s ears as he stood on the sidewalk outside the church’s administrative building. His next move was to walk to his car, get in, and go home. That seemed like a good idea, but he seemed frozen. The board of elders had just gotten done evaluating his first three months as the church’s youth pastor, and it had not gone well. He had entered filled with optimism. Attendance was up. His youth were getting more involved in the church. There was much left to be done, but he was pleased with the progress thus far. He even had a new plan, initiated by one of the youth, involving the young people visiting shut-in church members, encouraging them, and helping them. All in all, he felt he had done well in just three months in his new position.
But the board felt otherwise. He had spent nearly two hours hearing comparisons of his tenure thus far to the accomplishments of this former youth pastor, Fred Martenson, who had apparently been a paragon of all pastoral virtues, and had only left when the powers-that-be had required his services in a large church that was near collapse. Only the talents of their youth pastor would do to save the large church. So they had reluctantly let their treasure go.
David had never heard of Fred Martenson. He had replaced someone by another name, one he couldn’t remember at the moment and whose name nobody seemed to mention, and that only after a year’s vacancy. He’d heard nothing about this Fred from his young people, though he thought he’d heard the name from one of the older members a couple of times. It really hadn’t stuck with him.
But apparently the man was some kind of wizard at youth ministry, or apparently at pastoral ministry in general, and he was expected to live up to his accomplishments, whatever those might be.
His reverie was interrupted.
“That bad?” said Roger Geoffries.
David didn’t answer for a few moments. He was too surprised. He had not been certain Roger Geoffries could talk. The man was at the church regularly. He cleaned. He mowed the grass. He tended to flower beds. He fixed things that nobody else could fix. But when Roger talked … well, nobody knew. Roger never talked.
“How did you know?” asked David.
Roger Geoffries shrugged. He seem to indicate that it was obvious.
“Yes, it was bad,” said David.
“The ghost of Fred.” Was that just a twitch of a grin on Roger’s face?
“Ghost?” asked David.
Roger nodded. “Can’t catch him. Never sure when he’ll turn up. Never sure he’ll stay away.”
“Who was Fred Martenson?”
Roger stood looking at David. David didn’t know why, but he felt he was being evaluated, sort of like someone was doing some new, fancy medical scan on his soul. finally Roger spoke. “Have lunch with me tomorrow. Noon. Down at Purley’s Cafe.”
That caught David by surprise, but after a few moments of reflection, he decided that he’d better take any offer of friendship. There was no evidence that Roger had any power in the church, but he couldn’t refuse any offer of friendship.
“OK,” he said, and then somehow found the will to move. He waved at Roger who just nodded and went back to work.
At the cafe the next day, David was surprised when he found two people already at the table. There was someone with Roger, perhaps a few years older, but not by much. As David approached their table they both rose.
“Let me introduce the Right Reverend Dr. Fred Martenson,” said Roger with what was clearly a grin.
Fred held out his hand, but then looked back at Roger. “Oh cut it out!” he said. “We don’t use those titles, and even if I was in an organization that did, I wouldn’t be entitled to the titles. He enunciated ‘title’ so that it was clear he was enjoying the repetition.
David froze. After the night before, it was like meeting a legend. Or a ghost. He wasn’t sure which.
“Come on,” said Fred. “I won’t break your hand or anything.”
David remembered courtesy and shook hands with the legend. “It’s just a bit disconcerting, meeting a legend,” he said. He thought ‘legend’ was better than ‘ghost.’
“Or a ghost,” said Fred.
They all laughed.
“There are those who are legends in their own minds,” Fred continued. “And then there is something much worse. Legends in a church. You might think I should say ‘in the minds of church members,’ but it seems as though these legends, or ghosts, live in the very structure of a church. They’re at least as hard to exorcise as the demons that come out only by prayer and fasting.”
“But if you did all those things …” David’s voice kind of faded.
“But I didn’t.”
“You mean the board members were lying?”
“I think you have to know that you’re lying for it to be a lie. The board members are just repeating the church’s tradition.”
“I don’t understand.”
Roger interrupted, shocking David again. “It’s the youth group and the youth pastor that existed when I was growing up. Fred was my youth pastor. He’s only four years older than I am. I was one of his senior youth. And he was a good youth pastor. But when he got called to pastor a large church, peoples’ pride got in the way. His story started growing.”
“I met Roger again when he was in college.”
David was stunned again. Roger the groundskeeper in college?
“He was studying philosophy.” Fred paused, allowing David to recover from this next shock. “He discussed some of the questions he had about the Christian faith with me. So we started meeting. We’ve continued to meet since.”
“I saw the legend grow in the church,” Roger interrupted, “and I decided to do my best to remember things as they actually were. It was, indeed, a good time. But to be honest, young man, you have a chance to do even better.”
“But how do I overcome the legend?”
“You have to do that in your own mind,” said Fred. “If you win in your mind, you’ll be fine.”
“But won’t the church fire me?”
“Not hardly,” said Roger. “They didn’t fire the four youth pastors before you. They just drove them off. If you can’t be driven off, you have a great opportunity.”
“This kind comes out only by prayer and fasting,” said Fred. “The board of elders is going to pray, sort of. But the only person who’s going to pray and fast is you.”
Who is left among you who experienced our youth ministry in its former glory? How does it look now? Doesn’t it look like nothing to you? (paraphrase of Haggai 2:3)