The Man on the Couch

There was this man, sitting on his couch.

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.

This is a work of fiction. All characters (except possibly for Jesus on the couch, if that’s who it is) and events are products of my imagination. Copyright © 2014
Henry E. Neufeld

“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.”

“Do they?”

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.”

“Where?”

“There. Those homes.”

“But they’re all over the city! We have members coming from everywhere!”

“Just so! What an opportunity!”

“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!”

“I could.”

“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!

Can Either of You Recommend a Church?

“So how have you enjoyed our church?” asked Pastor Fred. He was the evangelism pastor for First Community Church, and he was out following up with recent visitors.

“It was interesting,” said Ed noncommittally. Ed had taken his family to First Community Church two out of the last four weeks, and had said that any Saturday afternoon would do for a visit when he filled out the visitor form.

“We were delighted that you chose to come back and visit us a second time,” said Fred.

“I like to get acquainted when I’m considering any major purchase, whether it’s a new car, a club, or in this case a church.”

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of any characters, events, or places to those in the real world is strictly coincidental. Copyright © 2012, Henry E. Neufeld.

There was an pause as Fred tried to absorb this. He knew people shopped for churches. He just wasn’t used to having anyone put it quite that bluntly. Just as the pause was becoming awkward, the doorbell rang. Ed got up and soon returned with Pastor George, the associate minister at First Fellowship Church. Fred and George were friendly rivals. Both churches were large and growing. This was the first time they’d ended up visiting a prospective member at the same time.

“I didn’t mean to intrude,” said George. “I can come back another time when you’re not occupied.”

“I don’t see why I can’t talk to both of you at once.” Ed looked puzzled that anyone could see a problem with this. “I’ve visited each of your churches twice. I didn’t plan to get you here at the same time, though I suppose it was always possible considering I put Saturday afternoon as the best time to visit.”

Fred and George looked at one another and then shrugged. “I guess it’s OK,” said Fred with a slightly forced smile. In fact, he was thinking that he would have to watch some of the things he usually said about First Fellowship. George might take exception!

“Where’s the rest of your family?” asked George.

“It’s hard to get this family in one place. My son’s at a school fundraising project, and my wife and daughter are at swimming class. Don’t worry, they’ll have their input. I’ll tell them what you had to say.”

Fred saw his opening. “One of the reasons I felt that your family would fit well at First Community is his community involvement. His Sunday School teacher mentioned to me that he knew many of our young people from various activities.”

“Yes,” said Ed, “he did mention how many of the young people he knew. My wife and I knew many people in our class as well. We would certainly see plenty of people we already know if we join First Community.”

“We like to encourage networking through the church. Many of our people make the church the center of their social and business life. We like to think we’re a church for all your family’s needs.”

George thought he saw an opening. It was his chief objection to his friendly rival’s church. What about spiritual needs? In fact, since both churches claimed to be Christian, what about Christ? He was about to open his mouth to say this, despite how confrontational it sounded, when Ed spoke again.

“But what about our spiritual needs? Our Sunday School class discussed building a house for Habitat. That’s a good thing, but I’m already involved. My son’s class talked about toleration and how to get along with others at school and at work. Your senior pastor’s sermon had to do with facing life’s problems, but I heard something like it at a sales motivational meeting I attended recently.”

George was feeling pretty good. It was what he wanted to say, but much more direct and complete with details.

“We definitely believe in Jesus as our Savior at First Community,” said Fred, “but we think it’s important to be active in living out God’s kingdom in the world. We’re about action and the way that real people live their lives. We try to have messages that will help you make it through the next week.”

George couldn’t leave this alone. “At First Fellowship,” he said passionately, “We are interested in messages that will help you live for eternity. We think that if you make Jesus Christ first in your life, these other things will come along quite well.”

“But they don’t happen by themselves,” said Fred. “You have to be active. Just saying that Jesus died for our sins over and over every week doesn’t tell people how they’re going to deal with being laid off, finding a new job, raising their kids, or helping their neighbors.” He knew he should keep calm and be gracious, but he felt that he was under attack, and quite unfair attack.

“Actually I’m quite satisfied that both your churches are very involved in the community. I did my research before I took my family to visit. I know you’re both involved in missions. You both do local service projects. Members of both churches are very much involved in the community.” He paused a moment.

“But what good is all of this if we don’t preach Christ?” George regretted this as soon as he had said it. He’d say something like this to Fred over lunch, where he’d joke about Christianity Lite, but this was not a debate to have with a prospective member, especially one who didn’t seem to have any solid theological commitment.

“That’s my question about your church,” said Ed, looking at George. There was stunned silence. Nobody questioned that Christ was preached at First Fellowship. They might complain about a certain doctrinal narrowness, and perhaps even a bit of evangelistic shrillness, but they wouldn’t say Christ wasn’t preached.

“I don’t understand,” said George.

“Well, the first time we visited was just before the ruling on the Affordable Care Act was announced. Our Sunday School class was supposed to be studying Romans 6, but instead we discussed the health care bill.” Fred was happy to note that Ed called it the Affordable Care Act. George was worried that he hadn’t called it Obamacare. “We didn’t really get around to discussing Romans 6 at all.”

“The second time we visited,” he continued, “we were supposed to be on Romans 8. I can only imagine they just continued moving through the book even though we hadn’t discussed it. But now the Supreme Court had ruled, and we discussed the ruling. I had done my reading and I wanted someone to explain how Romans 8 related to Romans 7. Instead I got a critique of Justice Roberts’ logic in the decision. I didn’t say anything, because I gathered that someone who thought the ACA was a good idea wouldn’t really be welcome.

“In the youth class they talked about homosexuality and how wrong it was. It was not done too badly. They spoke out against bullying and told the youth to treat their gay friends well, pray for them, and hope to save them. I’m not sure what was up in my daughter’s class. They did an art project relating to the name ‘Jesus’, but she couldn’t tell me what she had learned.

“Then there was the sermon, which was supposed to be from John 15, but quickly go derailed onto politics. I quit counting the number of times the pastor said he wasn’t telling us who to vote for, but he clearly didn’t mean it, because we could definitely tell we were not to vote for President Obama’s re-election.”

“I’ve frequently pointed out that First Fellowship tends to be politically narrow,” said Fred. “If you don’t accept the politics of the church you won’t be welcome, even if you agree with the theology.”

George wanted to be angry, but he realized it was no more pointed than what he had said about First Community.

But Ed wasn’t nearly as kind, apparently. “I wouldn’t put it that way,” he said. “Even though we didn’t discuss the ACA in class, someone brought it up in the hall and when I mentioned a question I had about the constitutionality of the individual mandate, several people turned away and didn’t want to talk to me any more. At my work place we debate this kind of thing all the time and we stay friends. Couldn’t we do the same thing at church?”

“We really should,” said Fred. “But people are people.”

“But why are they more tense at church then they are in the workplace?” asked Ed.

“I don’t know,” said George. “But you do have a point.”

“My problem,” said Ed, “is that I’d like a place where my children could learn about what Christianity is about without either having it rammed down their throats or having it ignored. I’d like a Sunday School class where I could find out just what Paul was up to moving from Romans 6 to 7 to 8. It doesn’t quite make sense, and I’d like to figure it out. Romans 8 sounds exciting!

“I’d like to find a church that was involved in the community, but that didn’t expect my whole life to center around what the church was doing. My whole family gets involved in community service. The church doesn’t have to own everything. I’d like to be able to talk about ethics and spiritual things and how they would impact my vote without having people condemn me if I end up voting differently than they do.

“Can either of you recommend a church to me that will meet those needs?”

 

The Benefit of a Secular Education

“I don’t know why it isn’t working.”

The old man looked over at the young pastor. He saw a well-dressed young man, with an earnest but very troubled expression.

“So that’s what you wanted to talk to me about? It isn’t working?” he asked.

“Right. It just isn’t working, and I don’t know why. I’ve done everything I know, and I just can’t seem to connect with my congregation.”

The old man thought for a minute. He could see that the young man was about to start talking again, but he waved him back with his hand.

“Just what is ‘it’ that isn’t working?”

“My ministry. My church.”

This is a work of fiction. All persons, places, and events are products of the author’s imagination. Copyright © 2011, Henry E. Neufeld

“You need to be more specific. What should be happening that isn’t?”

He could see a look of impatience pass briefly over the young man’s face. The young man clearly thought it was all very obvious.

“Well, church attendance is down since I took over the church. Membership is down. We haven’t had any professions of faith. We’ve had a few people transfer in, but not enough. We can’t meet our budget obligations. It just isn’t working.”

“So ‘it’ is a church with good statistics—membership, budget, church attendance.”

“Exactly! With all your experience as a pastor, I kind of expected . . .” His voice kind of faded. He had probably intended to finish with “you to know that.” But he didn’t.

“Numbers aren’t everything, you know,” said the old man.

“True, but there isn’t much that I can accomplish with a church that’s shrinking and that can’t pay the bills.”

“I didn’t say numbers weren’t important, just that they aren’t the only thing.”

There was another long pause.

“I’m wondering,” the old man resumed, ” what you preached about last Sunday.”

“I preached about the importance of being in church, not neglecting gathering together. It seemed to be what was needed.”

“And what reasons did you give them to go to church?”

“Well, besides that the Bible tells us to do so?”

“Yes, besides that.”

“I told them that it’s essential to our spiritual growth, to overcoming sin, and to becoming true disciples. We need encouragement from one another.”

“Did you mention farming?”

“No.”

“Truck driving?”

“No.”

“Teaching biology?”

“No. What do those things have to do with it?”

“Perhaps nothing at all. How long have you known you were called to be a pastor.”

The seeming non sequitur caught the young man off-guard. “Umm,” he said, “I think I knew when I was about 10 years old. I never told anyone till I was about 12.”

“And what did you take in college?”

“I took a degree in Bible. Many people questioned that decision, but I didn’t want to waste my time on things that weren’t relevant.”

“So you went to a Christian high school, then Bible college, then seminary, and from there to the pulpit, is that correct?”

“Yes.” He looked puzzled. This wasn’t how he expected this conversation to go. The old man had pastored many churches successfully. His reputation was that if you sent him to a large church it would get larger and more active. If you sent him to a small church it would become large. If you sent him somewhere where there was no church at all, there soon would be one. The man must have some secrets to pass on. The young man wanted those secrets.

“And how did you pay for school?”

“I was very blessed with that. I won scholarships that covered most of it. I have very little debt.”

“But you never really worked while you were in school, in a job, I mean.”

“Well, I was a teaching assistant.”

“To a religion professor?”

“Biblical studies. I learned a lot in that job.”

“Oh, no doubt. But how many biblical studies professors do you have in your congregation?”

The young man looked stunned again. “Well, none, of course.” The old man should know that much.

“How many truck drivers do you have?”

“I don’t know. Several, I’d think. There’s the factory and all.”

“How many farmers?”

“Well, again I don’t know exactly. Quite a few.”

“Teachers?”

“Again, we have a few.”

“What do you know about those things?”

“You mean the demographics of my congregation? I have a detailed report on my desk. I just don’t remember numbers well.”

“I don’t mean demographics. I mean what do you know about truck driving, farming, and teaching. Not Bible teaching, but regular secular teaching.”

“Well, I guess not much.” He’d thought of saying he knew something about those various topics, but he was afraid the old man would ask him what he knew, and he actually didn’t know anything about those jobs.

“Precisely,” said the old man, as though he had made a major discovery. “You never had the benefit of a secular education.”

“I see,” said the young man. And he didn’t like it, but he thought he did get it. “You mean I need to understand these people’s jobs so that I can find the hooks to draw them into spiritual things!”

It was the old man’s turn to be stunned. “No! No! No!”

“I don’t understand.”

“You need to know about their jobs and their lives so that you can help make those things sacred.”

The young man looked confused. “Make them sacred?”

“Where do you think the congregation impacts the world? In the church?”

“No, I suppose they do it at work. But I thought they should learn about spiritual things and then share those things at work. It’s my job to teach them spiritual things.”

“True, but only partially so. It’s your job to equip them to do ministry. You can’t equip them to do ministry if you don’t understand where it is that they’re going to do ministry. They do it at the office, in the cab of a truck, on a tractor, at the market, and in many other places.”

“I’ve tried to get more of them involved in the church . . .”

The old man interrupted him, “And that’s where you make your mistake.”

“But they need to be involved in the church!”

“Yes, but it’s even more important for the church, and I don’t mean your building or your committees or your programs, but the Church, the people, to get involved in the world.”

The young man looked at the old one for a couple of minutes. It was the first time of silence he wasn’t in a hurry to interrupt. He knew that. But he certainly hadn’t put it into practice.

“So what do I do now. I can hardly go back and change the way I was educated.”

“Perhaps so, but think about this. There are many ways to get a secular education. One is simply by paying attention to what people are doing. Now that you have the idea, I think you’ll think of ways to do it. And you may find it’s not all that secular after all . . .”

(This post has been submitted to the One Word at a Time Blog Carnival – Secular.)

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Our Church is Shrinking

“Our church is shrinking,” said the head elder, “and it’s your fault.”

Zeb didn’t respond immediately. He’d been summoned to the church board meeting, though when he’d used the word “summoned” the head elder had objected. “We just want to talk to you,” he had said. But it felt like a summons, and this felt like a trial, only less organized.

“Well,” said the head elder after the silence had grown uncomfortable. “Do you have anything to say?”

“I’m not sure what makes you believe it’s my fault the church is shrinking.”

“It seems obvious to me. We hired you to make this church grow, and now a year has passed, and we’ve lost more members this year than ever before, and of those that have joined the church not one—not one!—has stayed.”

Copyright © Henry E. Neufeld, 2011. This is a work of fiction. All events and characters are products of my imagination. Any resemblance to real persons, places, or events is purely coincidental.

“But this church has been shrinking for more than a decade, and shrinking faster each year. How does it become my fault?” Zeb looked truly puzzled.

“A year ago we took a big risk,” said another man, a businessman who also acted as church business manager. “We decided that we could afford to hire a pastor of outreach to stop the bleeding. But spending all that money on your salary has proven a bad investment.”

“Yes,” said another, “and you missed our last planning meeting as well.”

“I did send an e-mail to let you and the pastor know I wouldn’t be available.”

“Yes, an e-mail! I didn’t get it until after the meeting. But that meeting was important! Even critical! You had known about it for weeks. You shouldn’t have missed it.”

Zeb really couldn’t argue here. He’d chosen to drive a homeless man to the shelter. He’d sent an e-mail because he knew they wouldn’t get it in time and so they wouldn’t be able to order him to attend the meeting. He really could have gotten someone else to drive the man to the shelter. But he just couldn’t face that meeting.

“So you see,” said another, “we gambled on you and it looks like we lost.”

“I see,” said Zeb. Then he paused for more than a minute. People started shifting in their seats in discomfort as the time extended, but it did look like Zeb was gathering his thoughts.

“I’m afraid I’ve been operating under false pretenses,” he said finally. “The only excuse I can give is that I didn’t know it. But I should have. I should have known what you were doing.”

“What do you mean ‘what we were doing?'” asked the head elder. “We’re talking about you.”

“I’m wondering if you have the letter you sent describing this job.”

“I can’t say that I have a copy,” said the head elder. “Why?”

“Well, I can’t recall anything in there that said I was supposed to make this church grow. If I had seen anything like that, I wouldn’t have applied for the job. If I’d suspected anything like that was in your mind, I would have never taken it when it was offered.”

“But we hired you as outreach pastor!” The head elder was somewhere between shock and anger.

“And if you expect an outreach pastor to ‘grow your church,’ then you’re badly mistaken. I can’t grow your church and neither can any other person you might hire.”

“Don’t pretend that everyone is as incompetent as you are,” said the businessman.

“Incompetent? I suppose I deserve that. I should have realized just what you were up to long ago and done something about it. But I was so happy to be doing outreach and getting paid for it, I didn’t realize.”

“You keep saying things like, ‘what we’re up to,'” said the head elder. We’re not “up to” anything, except that we expect you to do your job.

“But you didn’t include ‘make our church grow’ in your job description.”

“I’d think it was obvious.”

“Oh, but it isn’t. In fact, it’s obviously wrong!” There was a gasp in the room. One didn’t tell the head elder he was wrong in that direct a way.

“So what do you think your job is?” asked the head elder after he’d recovered enough. He was sure they were going to fire this guy before the meeting was over.

“Well, the description you provided in your letter said things like ‘building the kingdom of God in this community’ and ‘reaching the lost for Christ,’ not to mention ‘leading the congregation in showing Christ’s love.’ I have tried to do those things with God’s help.”

“But if you had been doing all that, our church would have grown!” said the businessman. “As it is, few enough people visit, even less come back a second time, and the two families who did join left the church in a few weeks. So somewhere in there you’re not doing your job.”

Zeb tried hard to stay calm, but with that last line something broke in him. He had always wondered if there was such a thing as righteous anger, and he was in enough control to wonder if his anger right then was righteous or not.

“I think I can explain that,” he said in clipped tones.

“I’d really like to hear it, said the businessman before Zeb could continue.

“I really doubt you do,” said Zeb, and continued before he could be interrupted. “I remember each and every person I’ve brought to this house. One man came to church in jeans and a t-shirt. One of you told him he wasn’t dressed appropriately, and should make sure to wear appropriate clothing next time he was in church ‘out of respect for God,’ was the phrase, I believe.

“He didn’t own any better clothing, so he just never came back. Fortunately, I found him another church that was willing to let him attend in whatever clothing he had. Well, actually, the members got together and found him a new wardrobe. He has a job now as well.”

“But you’re supposed to be bringing people here!’ exclaimed the businessman, “You’re not hired to grow other churches.”

“I did bring him here, in case you hadn’t noticed. I’d even talked to some members and started to collect clothes for him. But you ran him off before I could finish.”

The businessman was red in the face and opened his mouth to respond, but Zeb just rolled right over him.

“Then there were the Jeffries. Their family actually joined the church, but one of you caught Mr Jeffries having a beer and told him he was misrepresenting Christ and the church by drinking. He decided he’d rather be somewhere else. But you see, nobody had told Mr. Jeffries that people at this church don’t drink beer.”

“You should have taken care of that,” said the head elder, just short of shouting.

“True, but you see, I can’t find anything in the stated beliefs and practices of this church that says one can’t have a beer. It’s just sort of something you do. Or don’t do.”

“So,” said the businessman, “you’re saying we’re running people off.” He was a practical man.

“Yes,” said Zeb, “you’re running people off.”

“I think you’re bringing in the wrong people,” said the head elder.

There was silence. Nobody wanted to put it that explicitly. The head elder had spoken without really thinking. It was something you did, but not something you named.

“I think,” said Zeb, “that the only honest thing for me to do is give you my resignation. The job you hired me to do can’t be done by someone hired. It has to be done by the whole church. And as it is, I wouldn’t want to do it. I don’t believe there are any wrong people. That you think there are”—he looked straight at the head elder—”is something I believe you should make a matter of serious prayer and seeking.”

With that, Zeb stood up and left the room. He tried to do it courteously, but he wasn’t sure he succeeded. He just knew he couldn’t waste time this way for another minute.

“Well,” said the head elder after Zeb had left, “what should we do?”

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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

The Organ and the Tramp

He was dressed in ragged clothing, more patches than original cloth.  His face was covered with the stubble of several days without shaving.  He looked like he should be cold but he wasn’t shivering.  In fact, he looked peaceful.

Tom saw the tramp out of the corner of his eye.  He looked around to see if anyone was watching, then turned to cross the parking lot and avoid the man.

“How did the meeting go?” asked a voice.

Tom turned.  It was the tramp.

“Fine.  How did you know I was in a meeting?”

“You came from the office.  The lights have been on in one room for some time.  It’s after office hours.  You were in a meeting.”  He said it evenly, calmly.

“Oh.”

“Did you get the organ?”

“Yes, I did.”

It wasn’t easy, was it?”

Tom looked at the tramp for a moment, he wasn’t wondering how the tramp knew what the meeting was about.  Instead, he wondered why he didn’t wonder.  “No,” he said.  “It wasn’t easy.”

“Patty wanted the money for more materials for the children’s department.  She made a strong case.”

“Yes, she did.”

“But she didn’t get the money.”

“No, she didn’t.”

“Alexander wanted you to buy an electronic keyboard rather than the pipe organ.  It would have cost less and it could have been used by both the contemporary praise band and the traditional service.”

“True, but there’s nothing like singing the good old hymns to the accompaniment of a pipe organ.  It was worth it.”

“The evangelism pastor wanted the money for outreach, didn’t he?”

“Yes, but he didn’t really need those materials.  Individual contact will work well enough.  You don’t need materials to introduce someone to Jesus.”

“Well, he didn’t get them either.  Nellie wanted the money to give to the homeless shelter.  But she didn’t get it.”

“Quite true.  The organ was very important to me.”

“I wonder how that happened?” asked the tramp.

“I guess they all understood just how important good music is to this congregation.”

“But your reputation didn’t hurt.”

“I’ve served this church longer than any of those folks have been alive!”

“That’s very important to you, isn’t it?”

“Well, it should be!  Christianity is all about service.  Some of these young people don’t want to do any of the work around the church at all!”

“But you’re always there, moving chairs, cleaning, mowing the grass, whatever needs doing.”

“Yes, I have.”  Tom looked at the tramp with pride.  He truly had done all those things.

“And you’ve made sure everyone knows, haven’t you?”

Tom paused, surprised.  “I never talk about my service.  If others notice, that’s their affair.”

“But you make sure they see you, don’t you?”

“I don’t do that!”

“Yet when you saw me you looked around before you headed for the other side of the parking lot.  You didn’t want to be seen avoiding me.  But when you were sure nobody would see, you turned away from me.”

Tom stopped and just looked.  He really had done that.  How had the tramp known?

“Well,” continued the tramp, “I hope the organ music truly blesses someone.”

Tom turned to away.  It wasn’t fair.  He was a servant.  Had been for years.  The organ was important.  It was a good thing!

He turned back to argue, but the tramp was gone.  Tom was surprised.  He would never have expected someone in the tramp’s condition could move that fast.

Whenever you did something for one of the least of my brothers or sisters, you did it for me. — Matthew 25:40

But as for you, when you do your charitable acts, don’t let yourleft hand know what your right hand is doing. — Matthew 6:3

Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the son of man doesn’t have anywhere to lay his head.” — Matthew 8:20

[This is a work of fiction.  Any resemblance to any persons in the real wold is purely coincidental.  Copyright © 2009, Henry Neufeld]

I Want My SUV!

[This is a work of fiction, and is part of my God-Talk club series. For more information follow the link. Also, I promised in my last God-Talk Club story that the club would discuss prophecy some more. This isn’t that post. I’ll get to it–soon, I hope. In another departure, this post was inspired by this one by John Meunier, rather than merely from my overactive imagination. This is also known as being “inspired by” a true story, in the Hollywood sense.]

“I have a question for you god-people,” said Bob. He had been tense ever since they started gathering, as though he had something important to say or ask.

“OK, spill it,” said Mandy.

“I just really don’t understand how you religious types live with it,” Bob continued.

“Live with what?” asked Mandy.

“Well,” said Bob, “Last night I was watching TV and this televangelist came on. I don’t know why, but I started watching this guy for awhile. He made a call for people who wanted prayer, and then he launched into his fundraising. He told his audience that if they gave God money, God would reward them 10-fold or even 100-fold. He even did the math for them. If they gave $1,000 to his ministry–I don’t recall when, but he switched from ‘give to God’ to ‘give to me’ somewhere in there–they’d get $10,000 or even $100,000 back. He even had a story of a retired lady on a fixed income–that’s how he said it–who sent her last $1,000 to him, and then received back $10,000 from an insurance settlement she hadn’t expected.”

“Wow!” said Mandy.

“What a charlatan!” Jerry added.

“Just can’t trust those preachers,” said Mac, winking in turn at Mark, Justine, and Jerry.

“What I’m wondering,” Bob continued, ignoring all the byplay, “is what happens if some old lady–elderly, that is–sends him her last $1,000, and then nothing happens. You all know that’s much more likely than that she’ll get a $10,000 insurance settlement.”

“What I’d like to know is why it’s an old lady. Why not an old gentleman? You’re not a male chauvinist pig, are you Bob?” Justine was just a bit annoyed!

“What does that matter? It’s the fraud I’m talking about!”

“What if the preacher means it?” asked Mandy. “I mean, what if he honestly believes that everyone who sends him money will get back multiples?”

“Then he’s insane!” said Jerry, raising his voice almost to a shout.

“I’m not defending him, Jerry. But don’t you or I have beliefs that someone else might regard as insane?”

“Like what?”

“Well, for example, I think we both believe that some guy was crucified back in Roman times, and his body came back to life, right?”

“And you’re comparing that to claim God will multiply money someone sends to a charlatan preacher?”

“Well–” Justine paused a moment. “Well, other than the charlatan part, isn’t multiplying the money less of a miracle than resurrection? It’s not impossible, is it, by miracle standards, that is?”

“No,” said Jerry slowly. “It’s not impossible. But that’s not the point. God never actually promised to multiply our money.”

“Yes he did,” said Justine, but both Jerry and Mandy ignored her. [Though it’s not discussed in this story, Justine is thinking of Matthew 19:29.]

“That’s really not the issue,” Mandy continued, “Is it? The question is whether the guy who claims it will happen has to be insane.”

“The problem there,” cut in Mark, who was sitting on the edge of his seat, “Is that this guy surely has to know that people are getting screwed all the time, that they aren’t all getting 10 or 100 times their money back.”

“But I think that’s not quite the point either. We all ignore many, many things that we ought to know. If we were guilty of fraud because of what we ought to know but don’t, we’d all be in serious difficulties!”

“On the other hand,” said Jerry, “This man is a preacher, claiming to be a minister of the gospel. He should know. If I were a financial advisor and advised my clients to send me money because it would be multiplied, even if I stupid enough to really think that my investment would produce that much, I’d be charged with fraud, because as financial advisor, I should know.”

“That’s a good point,” said Mandy. “I’d really like to be able to get a guy like that for fraud. He makes me sick. But you also have freedom of religion. I believe that God wants me to put my tithe in the offering plate at church. I believe that God will save my soul and take me to heaven. I’m not really supposed to see it as a quid pro quo, but am I not basing giving thousands of dollars a year to my church on something that is totally unproven?”

Mark jumped in again. “But you don’t have proof that it doesn’t work, do you? This preacher has evidence available to him that you won’t get the multiples of your money.”

“No, not true,” said Justine. “There is good evidence that most people won’t get the money, but unless he’s lying about his one elderly donor, then somebody did get the multiple. Of course, all things considered, he might be lying about that.”

“But there is no proof, or even evidence, that there is a connection between the two events!” Bob was emphatic.

“But that’s again different from the evidence against everyone getting something. We know that not everyone gets the money. We don’t know that anyone will, but we don’t know for sure they won’t or even that they didn’t already.”

“So you’re willing to give this guy more credit than the others do.” Bob Norman looked straight at Justine. “I thought you might. I’ve looked into your church, and you’re much more ‘miracle’ based than these other folks.”

“On the contrary, I think the man is a huckster, and it would be fine with me if he was hauled off to jail.”

“But you believe God can multiply.”

“Can, Bob, can. Can, not will. There’s a big difference. I never teach anyone to believe that God will function like a slot machine. There’s a blessing, but it’s often not in this life. If you don’t like giving money that will probably not come back, then don’t give–at my church, or I suspect at Mandy’s or Jerry’s.”

“Precisely,” said Jerry. Mandy nodded.

“Doesn’t this embarrass you?” Bob looked straight at Jerry, the respectable businessman of the group.

“Yes it does. It makes me wish I could disappear into a hole in the ground. But at the same time, I know that man’s faith is not my faith. He’s a fraud, but that doesn’t make me a fraud.” He paused a moment. “Or even Justine, though I think she plays awfully close to the fire!”

Mac mimed holding a revolver and blowing smoke from the barrel. “Close one, Justine, no?”

“Jerry’s a true believer,” said Justine. “He tries to avoid it, but deep down he really believes.”

Jerry had his mouth open, but Bob got in ahead of him. “I still really don’t see it. Wouldn’t the safest thing be not to accept things that are not properly supported by objective evidence? It seems a bit like gambling to me, only with much less likelihood of reward.”

“Well, it might seem like gambling to you, but to me, it’s just part of my relationship with God.” Justine spoke in pretty definite tones.

“If I was into my religion for the money, I’d get out,” said Mandy.

“Amen!” said Jerry. “I’m here for the spiritual benefit.”

“I don’t get this ‘spiritual’ stuff. How is it measured? How do you know it’s true?”

“It’s not measurable,” said Mandy. “It’s faith.”

“And that’s where it’s bogus,” said Mac. “Bob’s being nice to you guys, but I want to ask you, Mandy first: Do you think I’m a worse person than you are?”

“No, absolutely not,” said Mandy.

“So what’s the benefit of all this ‘spirituality’?”

“I think a better question would be whether I’d be a worse person without it. I think I would. Be worse, that is.”

“Do you think I’d be better if I was spiritual like you?”

“I think you could do with cutting off some rough edges, since we’re being direct, but I don’t prescribe spirituality for others. It’s a personal thing.”

“I bet Jerry doesn’t agree with you.”

“Indeed I don’t!” said Jerry. “Sometimes I wonder about you, Mandy! How can you believe in Jesus as your savior and not be sure he’s right for someone else?”

“To be more accurate, Jerry, I believe it’s not my business to prescribe what is right for someone else. If my husband were wearing that tie, I’d tell him to change it. In your case, it’s not really my business–well, except for illustration!”

“More of this subjective stuff,” Bob cut in again. “You always retreat into the subjective. So how do you deal with a fraud in Christianity? If I want to know whether a preacher I see on TV really represents ‘true’ Christianity, how can I tell?”

“Well, to start with, he’s on TV,” said Jerry.

“That’s silly, and you know it!” replied Bob. “I can tell you the guy is a fraud because he’s proposing a magical process to multiply your money. You can only respond with other subjective stuff. There’s really no way for a non-Christian to know! Yet you don’t want me to blame you for the frauds on TV!”

“It takes discernment,” said Justine.

“Or perhaps just wisdom and good judgment,” said Mandy.

“On the other hand, we could all just go with the evidence! How about that?” said Mac. Then she looked at her watch. “Oops! Got to go.”

[Watch for more discussion when the God-Talk Club gets together again.]