It Got Very Quiet up in the Mountains

It got very quiet up in the mountains.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How can one hear capital letters? he thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How do you know all those things?”

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

“I didn’t say that!”

“You were thinking it.”

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

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

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

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

“That sounds dangerous.”

“Actually living is dangerous.”

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

“What do you think you’re doing?”

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

“My church,” said the voice.

“Yes, my church.”

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

“I’m trying to pray here,” he said.

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

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

“What do you think?”

“I think I’m crazy.”

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

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

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

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

“In God?”

“Of course, in God.”

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

There was silence for several minutes.

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

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

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

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

“The pastor preached it, you ignored it.”

“What was I supposed to do about it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You wanted a church fight?”

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

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

“And did the funds ever come in?”

“No.”

“So you killed that one too.”

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

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

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

“People respected him, loved him.”

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

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

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

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

“Isn’t it your blessing or curse?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was another pause.

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

“But he’s a troublemaker.”

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

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

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

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

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

“So right and wrong doesn’t matter?”

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

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

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

It got very quiet up in the mountains.

Can We Trust Him?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The woodsman thrust his arm toward the chief again.


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

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

You Give Them Something to Eat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where do you go to church?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is anyone with me?”

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

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

“My mom works for …”

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

One of Miriam’s friends started taking notes.

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

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

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

The Former Youth Group

“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.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of persons, places, or events to anything in the real world is strictly coincidental. This story was written as a comment on the lectionary, Pentecost + 25, Cycle C. Copyright © 2013, Henry E. Neufeld.

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.

“Usually is.”

“Why?”

“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)

 

The Missionary’s House

Iced tea with lemon.
Image via Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But are you willing to apply it?”

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

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

“I would guess none of them.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s harsh!”

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

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

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

“Thinking and praying is all I can ask.”


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

 

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A Shell of a Church

“So why did you want to see me, Charlie,” said the elderly man after the preliminary social amenities were completed.  “It’s been what, 25 years?”  His tone was friendly, but his face showed disappointment.

“I wanted you to see what we have happening here.  Thirty-five years ago I received my call to ministry in your church when you were preaching.  The church helped me get to seminary.  Now look at this monument to the gospel.  That’s part of your legacy.”

The elderly man sat quietly for a minute.  Charlie said it with pride, but it was a pride that was assumed, sort of like a role.  He was supposed to be proud of his accomplishments because he was supposed to be.  But behind it there was something else.  Concern?  No, fear was more like it.

“So you called me again after 25 years of silence because you wanted me to see this campus?”  It was a beautiful campus, several acres, more than $20 million in budget every year, a lighted cross that could be seen for miles around, thousands of worshipers.

“Well, that was part of it.”

“A very small part, I suspect.  You can’t call me at 11 PM, sounding panicked, and tell me that you need to see me as soon as possible, and then expect me to believe you wanted to show me the campus.”

Charlie looked at him for a moment, then chuckled.  “I never could deceive you, could I?  I still can’t.  Look at this.”  He pulled out a sheaf of papers and slid them across the desk.

The elderly man looked at them.  They were worn and dog-eared, but he could see the date on the front page and it was only two weeks ago.  Somebody had been spending a lot of time with these papers.  The title read “Survey of Attitudes and Values” followed by the name of the church.

“Why don’t you sum it up for me.  I was never all that good with figures,” he said.

“Well, it’s not good news.  It tells me that my church members are pretty much  like the neighborhood.  They’re concerned about the same things, they have the same values, the same divorce rates, the same views on major moral issues.  People who worship here are as likely to support abortion as those who don’t, for example.”  He paused.  “Actually, they’re a bit more likely.  They give a bit less, they serve a bit less, they’re as likely to be divorced.  It goes on and on.  There’s no good news.”

“And this surprises you?”

There was a minute or so of silence.

“You think it shouldn’t?” asked Charlie.

“I think there is always a reason.”

“I’m guessing there would be a different result at the old home church, not that there are enough members to do a proper survey.”

“I don’t know what a survey would show.  I never had one taken.  I doubt we could afford it.”

“Well, it’s a small church.  Here we need to have a way to measure our success.”

“But your problem is that it’s not success that you’re measuring.  Do you have any problems with your church budget?”

“Other than the normal, no.”

“You have all the buildings you need?”

“Well, we have some new projects going.”

“Your church is growing?”

“Certainly.”

“So why did you have the survey taken?”

“I wanted to know what impact we’re having on people.”

“You’re their pastor.  Can’t you tell?”

“There are thousands of people here.  I can’t possibly know them all.”

“And you thought this,” he picked up the survey, “would help you find out?”

“Yes.  I was wondering if we needed some new classes, or perhaps counseling programs.  Things to help people find their values and live up to them.”

“Did you really think those things were going to work?”

“I don’t know.  I was concerned before the survey was taken.  Since I read it, I’m feeling even worse.”  He paused.

“What is it that you feel?” prompted the elderly man.

“I feel like this is a shell.  Like God isn’t here.”

“Good.”

“Good?”  Charlie looked puzzled.

“You are still able to listen to the Holy Spirit.”

“But this is discouragement!  Surely it’s the work of the enemy!”

“It would be discouragement if it wasn’t true.  If it’s true, it’s conviction.”

“So do you have any suggestions?  Anything I can do?  I’ve been thinking about new classes about the basics of Christianity.”

“No, I don’t think that is what you need.”

“Then what?  You were my mentor.  You’re the only one I can turn to.  The only one who doesn’t expect me to have everything together.”

“No, that’s not true.  There is One other.  And I think he has some advice for you.  You may not like it.”

So be zealous, and repent! – Revelation 3:19b

Unless YHWH builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. – Psalm 127:1

Comforted

She wasn’t comfortable with this visit, but it was her duty.  He had lost his son just three weeks earlier and she had conducted the funeral.  The death had been sudden, tragic.  The man had lost his wife only three years earlier, and his son was his life.  At the funeral he had been devastated.

Now he looked peaceful, almost happy.  It was very strange.  Could he get over such a loss in just three weeks?  He’d been away for the last two weeks, and had told nobody where he was going. Many had feared that he would commit suicide, or maybe already had.  But here he was, comfortable in his own living room, accepting her pastoral visit.

“You look better,” she said.

“I am better.”

“Where have you been?  Your friends have been worried.”

“I went hiking.  In the wilderness.  Mountains.”

“You could have been hurt.  Nobody knew where you were.”

“I wasn’t hurt.”

“No, I can see that.  But hiking all alone, in your condition!”

“Alone?”  He paused.  “I see why you say that.  But no, not alone.”

“What do you mean?”

“God was with me.”

“I know that God is with you everywhere, but you need human contact.”

“No, I needed to talk to God.”

“And did God speak to you?”

“Well, yes and no.”

“Yes and no?”

“Well, there was no voice.  There were just trees, rocks, streams, mountains, birds, and yes, a few animals.  But I heard God.”

“And that has brought you this peace?”

“Peace?  Is that what I feel?  Then yes, it brought me peace.”

“So somehow in looking at the mountains you found a purpose in what happened to you?”

“No, no purpose.  It still makes no sense to me at all.  But I can live with it.”

“So you didn’t hear anything from God, you didn’t learn anything, but you found peace?”  As she said it, she knew it was wrong.  She should be celebrating his peace, not questioning it, but she couldn’t help herself.

“Oh, I did learn something from God.”

“Yes?  What was it?”

“As I looked at the mountains I realized just how overwhelmingly great God is, just how much beyond my understanding.”

He paused and she waited silently.

“I learned just one thing,” he said.  “I learned that God is God.”

Then YHWH answered Job out of the whirlwind and said,
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge.”  — Job 38:1-2 (author’s translation)

Then Job answered YHWH and he said, …
“Therefore I desist, and repent in dust and ashes.” — Job 42:1,6 (author’s translation)

Who Felt God’s Presence?

[This is a work of fiction, Copyright © 2009, Henry E. Neufeld.  Any resemblance between the characters in this story and any in the real world is purely coincidental.]

It was a small hotel room in a small town, and Jack had driven three hours on small county roads to get there.  Now he was finally in the presence of the revival preacher he wanted to see.

“What can I do for you son?” asked the preacher.

“I need the answer to a question.  I have been trying to locate you for nearly a year.”

“Well, I’m on the road all the time.  I really don’t have a stable home address.”

“Yes, in a way that’s why I want your answer to my question.”

“Oh, I see.”

“Yes, I have a hard time believing the flashy men that I see on TV, but then, I have a hard time believing you!”

“So let’s see what we can do.  What is your question?”

“First, let me tell you my story.”

“OK.”

“I attended a revival you preached in small church in my home town, Glory of God Community Church.  I went with a number of my friends.  We all really planned to laugh.  You know, revival preacher, unknown, couldn’t find hardly anything about you on the internet.  You must be some kind of fraud, just not a big enough fraud to get on TV.”

The preacher chuckled.  “If I had a dollar for every time someone said that about me, maybe I could get on TV!”

“Yes, well.  I enjoyed the music.  I felt convicted by your message.  Rather than laughing, we all ended up going up to the front for your altar call.  There you were, praying out loud, occasionally in tongues, yelling, putting your hand on people’s heads, and they were falling all over the floor of that church.  I think any of the preachers on TV would have given good money for the scene, now that I look back on it.  None of this hard work praying and praying and then blowing on people that I see–just people on the ground.  It looked like maybe a tornado had gone through.”

“Well, don’t pay too much attention to what you see.”

Jack paused.  That line seemed to hit him.  “There was Bill, my best buddy, who did nothing but laugh at what the preacher had to say in church, or at the various little old ladies, as he put it, tottering around the church like they were drunk.  I think he might have believed in God somewhere deep inside, but he certainly wasn’t paying any attention to him.  He looked like he was unconscious.  Then there was Ellie, who I know was having sex with Fred, and Fred himself who said church was only good for establishing your social position–Fred plans to be in real estate–but they were both on the floor as well.  I have to confess to having been distracted by the way Ellie’s dress got pulled up when she hit the floor.  But I didn’t think of it for long as I normally would have.”

“What about you?” asked the preacher.

“Well, first, let me tell you that Beth, who was always holier than the rest of us was on the floor, but she was crying and saying something about what a horrible sinner she was and how she repented.  And then there was Randy who I was always a straight arrow, writhing on the floor like he was having a fit.

“But me, you ask.  What about me?  I was just standing there watching it all.  I really didn’t feel anything, except I felt that I had to be up front right then.  I’d have rather been anywhere else.  All those bodies on the floor?  Good TV?  Well, for me, it was simply creepy.  I thought you were nuts!  I wondered if you were using some kind of gas or something on the audience.

“At the same time, though, I knew I had to get right with God.  So I just stood there.”

“And what has happened since?” asked the preacher.

“First, my question.  How was it that all of them were hit so hard, but I was just standing there fully aware of what was going on, not crying, nothing!  I’m sure you say it was God, but how could God miss me?”

“What has happened since?” asked the preacher again.

“You’re not going to answer my question, are you?”

“You need to tell me, Jack, what has happened since that day.”  The preacher sat there quietly.

“Well, I think Ellie and Fred quit sleeping together for a while, but then they started living together.  They didn’t get married.  They still are living together.  I really have no idea what happened to Beth.  She was holier than the rest of us before, and she was holier than the rest of us afterward.  Bill, I think was very quiet for some time, but last week he passed me a note with a dirty joke about the preacher during church, so I don’t know.  Randy, on the other hand, quit school and went out to work on some sort of farm that helps feed the homeless.”

“And you.  What about you?” asked the preacher.

“Well, I just can’t get comfortable.  I’m spending a lot of time praying, and then when I pray I feel like I have to go do something, so I’ve begun candidacy for the ministry.  I study my Bible a lot.  I keep finding myself volunteering for stuff that I wouldn’t have done before.  I’ve lost all my friends, but I’ve found some new ones.  My pastor says all that stuff with people falling on the floor is just show, that it’s not God.  But God got hold of Randy, didn’t he?  Maybe he got a few days of attention from the others.  But me, I don’t have any answers.”

“And you think you should have answers.”

“Well, if God touched me, shouldn’t I know something?  Shouldn’t something have happened?”

“How much time did you spend praying before?”

“You mean other than offering the blessing at dinner when my dad said I had to?”

“Yes, other than that.”  The preacher smiled.

“Ummm, none.  I can’t think that I prayed.”

“And how much time did you spend reading your Bible?”

“None, well, except when the Sunday School teacher asked me to read a text out loud.”

“And how much time did you spend volunteering before?”

“Well, I never did any of that.”

“So did something happen that night, or not?”

Jack stopped and stared at him.  “Yes,” he said finally, “something happened.  But not what I expected.  Not what you were trying to do.”

“So you think my goal was to have people all over the floor?”

“Well, that’s what you did.”

“Son, when you walked in here I was sitting here praying and asking God if I could quit.  You see, I keep going places and preaching, and people keep falling on the floor, and then when I visit the place again, I can’t see any difference!  You’re right, I could have a TV program.  I did have a TV program, though it was only in one town.  One day a producer came to me and said, ‘Son, you’re ready to go national with that.’  ‘With what?’ I said.  ‘With your show,’ he said.  I talked with him a bit, but I already knew that wouldn’t work.  I didn’t want a show.”

“So why do you still do it?”

“Well, I could say that it’s what I know.  But actually, it’s just what happens.  I don’t know if God is doing it.  Seems to me that God has a sense of humor!  I do know that some of these churches expect it.  But every time I get discouraged, someone like you comes along who got changed.  So I just go on preaching and praying, and watch what happens.”

“But how do you explain it?  My pastor wants to know what’s your theology of the Holy Spirit.  Pneumatic something or other he calls it.”

“Pneumatology’s the word.  I learned it in Bible college.  But I have no pneumatology, really.  I just preach and pray.”

“But still, why didn’t I feel anything?”

“But you already admitted that you had to be up front.  You admitted that you felt God calling you.  You admitted that you changed.

The preacher paused, then continued slowly, with emphasis on each word:

What did you think the presence of God would feel like?”

Scripture: 1 Kings 8, and all those various passages that talk about God’s presence in all kinds of ways.

After the Fire, What?

The first time that Yagac approached the shrine he was carrying a stick he had cut from a tree and sharpened.

“What do you bring for the god?” said the aged priest. Villagers said he had been at the shrine more than a hundred years. He looked it.

“I bring this spear,” said Yagac, his young voice trembling.

The priest saw a thin, or better scrawny boy who might be in his teens, though he could be taken for younger. He knew the villagers had very little to eat.

“That? That’s a stick.”

“It’s a spear. My father says that the God accepts whatever is the best you can bring. You must let me offer it.”

The priest thought a moment. It was true that he had told the villagers the god would accept their best. He had meant “only their best” but perhaps this was the best the boy could offer. It wouldn’t do to give the villagers the idea of withholding things.

“Go in, offer it, and say your prayers.”

Inside Yagac laid his spear on the altar, then prayed. “You know that the lord in the castle takes what he wants. Now he has even taken my sister. I would like you to do something about it.”

He felt very peaceful and wanted to laugh–a joyful laugh. But he didn’t do either. He put on a sober look and walked from the shrine.

“Did you receive peace?” asked the priest.

“I wasn’t praying for peace,” said Yagac. Then he walked off toward the village.

The second time Yagac came to the shrine he was carrying a knife made of flint. It was very well formed, and had a wooden handle attached to it with some twine that looked hand woven.

This time the priest just waved him in. At the same time he got an idea. Why not benefit from the repeated returns of the boy?

Inside Yagac laid his knife on the altar, then prayed. “You know that the lord in the castle takes what he wants. Now he has even taken my sister. I would like you to do something about it.”

This time the peace and joy that came over him was nearly overwhelming. He was sure there was some divine presence in the shrine. But he wasn’t satisfied. He carefully straightened his face as he walked out past the priest.

The priest stopped him. “If you come again to offer a weapon, you must bring food with it. The guards from the castle will be suspicious if they see you bringing weapons as sacrifices. Traditionally they are sacrifices to give one courage and victory in battle.”

Yagac nodded and walked away toward the village.

The third time Yagac came to the shrine he was carrying a basket with some vegetables in it. Amongst the vegetables was a very respectable hammer made of a hard rock carefully attached to a wooden handle.

This time the priest decided to make use of provisions he had made to listen to the prayers of worshipers. He had ignored the boy because he figured he was praying for some childish thing and he had no interest.

Inside Yagac laid his basket on the altar, pulled the hammer out and put it beside the basket, then prayed. “You know that the lord in the castle takes what he wants. Now he has even taken my sister. I would like you to do something about it.”

This time the feeling of peace and joy truly was overwhelming. Yagac fell on the floor laughing hysterically. Then he got up, straightened the rags he wore for clothes, wiped any smile from his face, and left.

The priest intercepted him. “You have been touched by the god. I can see it on you. You should be satisfied with what has happened. His peace and joy have come upon you.”

“I wasn’t praying for peace and joy,” said Yagac.

A bit of fear came over the priest. He liked the way things were in the village and at the shrine. While the village produced little, something came to him from everyone, and then he received a monthly payment from the castle lord for help in keeping the villagers quiet.

It wasn’t that he didn’t believe in the god, though he had never seen anything that could definitely be crediting to his activity. The peace and joy? That was a secret ingredient in the incense.

“Be very careful what you pray for, child,” he said, trying for a fatherly expression and tone. “The gods always demand much of those they aid! Be happy with his peace, lest you find the price of an answer too high.”

He didn’t say this because he thought anything might happen. He just didn’t want word of a child with such a prayer getting back to the village. He considered reporting the child to the castle guards, but he decided there was no real threat. He’d just bring trouble on himself.

The final time Yagac went to the shrine he was running. He was carrying a short sword in its scabbard. He could barely carry it and run. The priest could hear the sound of horses’ hoofs further in the distance. He moved to block the boy, but he was old and slow, and the boy ran directly into the shrine.

Yagac slammed the sword down on the altar and said, “You know that the lord in the castle takes what he wants. Now he has even taken my sister. I would like you to do something about it.”

But this time he continued. “I don’t want peace. I don’t want joy. I want revenge. I want things changed. I don’t care what it costs.”

The guards were already outside the door, and the priest turned away so as not to see the boy killed. The priest didn’t really believe anything might happen.

Suddenly the ground shook. Something emerged from the temple, but it wasn’t anything that could be recognized as Yagac. As it took steps the ground shook. Fire surrounded it. The guards fled in terror.


Yagac felt no different. He was still just Yagac just a boy. But as he returned from the castle, riding into the village on a horse he had appropriated the villagers bowed down in the street, hailing him as a conquering hero.

He was no hero! He was Yagac, who could plow the straightest furrow. Yagac, who loved his family and missed his sister. He’d found her dead in the castle. It wasn’t fair! These people wanted food. They wanted protection.

Yagac spurred his horse and rode down the trail away from the village. But even as he did it he knew he would be returning. The god demanded it.

He was also Yagac the responsible, and he would pay the price.

3Our God comes
but he doesn’t keep silent.
Fire devours before him,
A furious windstorm surrounds him. — Psalm 50:3

(See my devotional on this verse.)

The Call

Once in a lifetime, perhaps, a king’s knight would ride over the hill to the south of the village. His armor would be gleaming, his clothing immaculate, and his weapons beyond the comprehension of the villagers.

He would come to the center of the village, order that all the young people be assembled, and then he would look from one to another. If he saw one he liked for the king’s service, he would call that one. He would say that the one called could refuse, but few believed that. Even fewer believed that the one called would ever be seen again, though they couldn’t agree on precisely how long ago anything like this had actually happened.

Even more rarely, never in living memory of the villagers, a king’s knight would appear, it was said, to settle quarrels between neighboring lords, to deal with bandits, or to administer the law.

They assumed that the one called would be trained to fight the king’s battles, and none of them particularly cared for that. It was hard enough fighting for their local lord, who required his tenants to carry spears and march to battle with neighboring lords if there was a dispute. These disputes were always short, because it was said that if they got too wild or too long, the king would intervene.

But nobody could remember that ever happening, and there were many who believed it was all a lie, a story told and retold to keep people in line.

But one fine spring day while planting was in full swing and nobody was happy for the interruption, over the hill came just such a knight. His armored gleamed like a mirror, and he had with him three riding horses, though he wore his full armor and rode his war horse as he entered the village.

He found the headman and told him to assemble the young people of the town from age 15 to 25, both boys and girls here in the center of the village. The headman didn’t want to do this, and the farmers didn’t want their children brought in from the fields. They certainly didn’t want one of them to ride away on one of those empty horses.

But tradition was strong, and fear even stronger, so the young people were assembled. The knight passed from one to the next, looking and then passing on. He stopped in front of Hedder, a young lady of 17. Hedder had fine, golden hair but otherwise she looked too heavy duty to be considered pretty. Handsome, yes. Pretty, no.

She also asked too many questions and frightened her parents and the headman who liked their world orderly and secure. She was a good babysitter, and a fine farm worker. In fact, other than all those questions, few could find fault with her, though it was said that many young men of the village had begged their parents not to arrange a marriage with her, which explained why she was not betrothed.

“Come, follow me,” said the knight to Hedder.

“No!” cried the headman, thinking of what this apparent honor might suggest to the other girls of the village. He had never imagined that the order to include the girls meant that one actually might be called in this way.

“No!” cried Hedder’s father, thinking about all the planting to be done and how fast his large and heavy duty daughter was at this work.

“No!” cried her mother, half for her daughter, and half for the girl who took care of all the children, allowing her to accomplish her household work.

But Hedder simply let the hoe she had carried form the field fall on the ground and stepped toward the knight. Before most of he villagers had time to recover from surprise, she was seated on one of those horses, riding out of the village.

Many years passed, and the call of Hedder became legend in the villagers. There were those who had been young when it happened who openly questioned whether such a thing had ever occurred. Those who had been there assured them it had, but they didn’t believe.

“It’s much like the intervention of the king,” they would say. “Everybody talks about it, but it never happens. Nobody can even remember it happening.”

“The king will intervene if it’s necessary, we know he will,” said the elders. But deep inside they doubted as well.

“There is no king,” said the younger folk, “and even if there is, he just calls our young people. He doesn’t intervene.”

It happened that very month that the local lord felt that his neighbor had overstepped his bounds, and had moved boundary markers, giving himself more land. Words were exchanged, and finally blows. Then both men went back and summoned their tenants to get out their spears and come to war.

The two armies moved boundary markers back and forth, and occasionally killed one another with spears. The men needed to go to the harvest, but the lords would not allow them to leave.

“Not until all the boundary markers are restored!” said the one.

“Not until my enemy is hanging from a tree for all the damage he’s caused!” said the other.

Nobody knew that one of the village headmen had sent a messenger to find one of the king’s knights before all the harvest was ruined in the field. He didn’t tell anyone, because people would think him foolish. If the messenger returned with help, he would be vindicated. If not, he thought, perhaps the messenger would never return.

Finally one day the two sides gathered across a field from one another. It looked like finally there would be a big battle and one side or the other would win decisively. As they got in formation, lowered their spears and prepared to charge at one another, there was a commotion to the south.

It was a knight, with armor polished and shining, but with a sword out in his hand. Slowly the knight rode between the battle lines. The men looked at their spears and thought that there was really no use trying them against that armor.

As the knight reached the center, both lords came out to meet him.

“I have a right to defend my land!” said the one.

“I have a right to defend myself against this maniac!” said the other.

The knight removed his helmet. Golden hair flowed out. In a feminine voice, soft but firm and authoritative Hedder said: “I would suggest you reconsider. I am called by the king, and he likes his servants to live in peace.”

“Follow me!” — Mark 1:17 (and many others)Mark