Preserving Life

MRI scan on the monitor of patient`s head

You’re really in there, I believe. You wanted to die, but I saved you. As I read your brain activity, you’re still aware. You just can’t show us.

How do I know that? I’m the neurologist who saved your life. You botched the attempt to kill yourself, and I kept you alive. There was brain damage, yes. No, you can’t respond. But you’re alive in there. I know it. No doubt at all.

Yes, your wife told me “no heroic measures.” But that meant nothing beside the moral imperative. I had to preserve your life. Dead, there’s nothing anybody, nothing even God, can do. And you didn’t really want that, not with the way you botched your attempt to take your own life!

What could you have been thinking? You were about to take yourself out of God’s hands, away from God’s grace! No possibility of repentance then. Just the eternal fires of hell, where you could regret your decision forever.

But I saved you. And since I know you’re in there, you’ll have time to regret your decision now, to repent. You’ll thank me. As close to the flames as you were, I bet you’re thanking me now.

No, won’t happen. Your wife won’t force me to remove life support. I got her charged with helping you kill yourself.

True, it won’t hold up, but the court cases will drag out for years. I have a foundation that will fund your care, and another that will pay the legal bills. Politicians are signing on. All for your sake! All to preserve your life!

So if you haven’t already, you’ll have plenty of time to repent. And to thank us.

For preserving your life, of course!

I have to do this. I had to save your life, because life is sacred. I have your soul, the only thing more important than your life.

I’m certain it’s the right thing to do.


For some non-fiction thoughts on end of life, see:

Hospice and Palliative Care: A Quality Alternative to Assisted Suicide

Suicide and Grief

Is Euthanasia Wrong – NO

 

 

The God-Talk Club and the Gay Guitarist – II

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance between the characters, places, events, and organizations and those in reality is entirely the product of the author's imagination. Copyright © 2014, Henry E. Neufeld.
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance between the characters, places, events, and organizations and those in reality is entirely the product of the author’s imagination. Copyright © 2014, Henry E. Neufeld.

(This is part 2 of a 2 part story. Read part 1.]

“I disagree with that. Rather, I allow my LGBTQ members full participation without making a scene about it. They know, I know, and my church council knows what’s going on. I don’t perform same-sex weddings because it’s contrary to the rules of the church. Yes, I’m ignoring the position of my church that homosexual activity is contrary to scripture, but it’s not quite clear what one is supposed to do about that anyhow.”

“And what do you do with the clear teaching of scripture?” asked Jerry.

“Clear teaching of scripture? It is to laugh. I do the same thing about that as you do about the command not to eat shell fish or pig. I see you eating a hamburger every so often.”

“But Paul took a clear stance against homosexuality.”

“I don’t think it’s so clear as all that. Paul didn’t have a concept of someone being homosexual by nature. He spoke of doing things against nature. And few such relationships at the time could be considered consensual. So no, I don’t think the teaching of scripture is any clear than, say, the teaching of scripture on the ordination of women.” As he said the last, he looked Justine right in the eyes. “Yes,” he added, “I’m acquainted with Romans 1[:24-32], Jude around verse 7,  1 Timothy 1[:8-11], and  1 Corinthians 6[:9-11]. I just don’t think those refer to consenting relationships between people who are naturally attracted to persons of the same sex.”

Jerry looked back and forth between them. He couldn’t seem to figure out who to address. His problem was not confusion. He was stunned by this sweeping dismissal of clear scripture.

Justine responded first. “I understand how one might dismiss the Old Testament passages as part of the ceremonial law, though I think there are principles from us to learn from just about any of those laws. But I don’t think we can so easily dismiss the New Testament. And with Paul’s restatement of the prohibition, I think we draw the Old Testament passages back into the discussion.”

“I find it difficult to see how you draw in passages from the Torah into a modern discussion when the penalty involved was death. If the one part applies, why not the other? I mean, I sincerely hope there is nobody here who supports the death penalty for being gay.” Mandy again looked more serious than usual, and sounded more tense.

Nobody volunteered to support the death penalty.

Bob Norman took up the conversation. “There are people in the world, Christians, in fact, who do believe the death penalty should still apply. We’ve seen such laws proposed and some even passed in various African nations. We even have churches here in America who have ties to those who advocate those laws.”

“Yes,” said Mac. “Who here has condemned those laws and taken action against them?”

Both Mandy and Justine raised their hands, an act that seemed a bit ludicrous in the informal group.

Ellen broke in. “I’m wondering if Justine wouldn’t rather be talking about something else right now. I imagine she’s spent the last month or so talking about nothing else!”

“Oh, I want to talk about it. I wanted to talk about it in a group that was less inhibited. I like to really tear a subject apart. There’s no other way I can be sure I’m doing the best I can to understand and do the right thing.” Justine actually did look more relaxed than when she had arrived.

“OK,” said Mark. “I want to know what the two of you have done about these anti-gay laws in Africa.”

“I’ve written letters to church leaders supporting these moves, and contributed money to groups working to oppose them,” said Mandy.

“I’ve stuck to letter writing and I’ve condemned that attitude from the pulpit,” said Justine.

“But how can you?” asked Bob. “As I see it, those folks in Africa have the courage of your convictions and you don’t.”

“No, I have the courage of my convictions. They have the courage of theirs. I believe we no longer live in a theocracy. I believe we no longer live under the law. So I don’t have to apply a legal penalty to these actions. I opposed them because I believe they are destructive of a good and proper life in this world and they are destructive of people’s souls in the next.”

“Amen!” said Jerry again.

“What’s destructive is hate,” said Mandy.

“Hate? Do you really believe I hate gay people?” asked Justine.

“I don’t actually believe you hate, though it’s hard for me not to think so. If I didn’t know you so well, I’d mistake your attitude for hatred. The problem is that you enable people to hate by telling them that other people are less than you and I are.”

“But I say that everyone is a child of God. We are all the same before God.”

“But some of us can stand on the stage and play a guitar and others can’t.”

“My guitarist agreed to those rules.”

“He agreed to pretend.”

“You seem to think it was impossible for him to refrain from sexual activity. Did you not teach your own teenagers that they didn’t have to engage in sexual activity before marriage?” Justine and Mandy were now focused directly on one another.

“I did. But you keep missing the point. You require that a gay person deny who he is in order to fit into your world of what is permissible. It’s not that my children’s desires were evil in themselves, and I could point them to the legitimate time and manner in which they could be fulfilled. It’s not good to be alone—that comes from Genesis 2. But one of my children, my oldest daughter, is a lesbian. And I didn’t tell her that she was somehow less than a person, that she should be less fulfilled than the others when she came out to me.”

“Oh Mandy!” exclaimed Justine.

“Oh no you don’t!” exclaimed Mandy. “Don’t even think of being sympathetic, as though I was grieving about something! Not only do I love my oldest daughter unconditionally, I am proud of her in each and every way and I wish her and her future partner—she’s not in a major hurry, but I think there’s someone on the horizon—the very best. I will love them both in the same way. I’m incredibly blessed.”

There was another moment of silence.

Mandy grinned without much humor. “Afraid to continue the discussion considering someone has skin in the game, so to speak?”

“No,” said Jerry. “I still believe what I did. But I didn’t realize we were talking personally.”

“But that’s precisely the problem!” said Mandy. “You don’t talk personally, but people hear personally. We’re talking about real people. I’ve just made it more personal by revealing my daughter’s sexual orientation. And incidentally, I have permission to do so. She’s extremely open.”

“No idea where she gets that from,” said Mac to chuckles all around.

“OK, I’ll do what you suggest,” said Jerry. “I want to know what you do about the plain teaching of scripture. And despite the usual dismissal from Mark, I think scripture is rather clear.”

“I see it a bit differently than Mark does,” said Mandy. “I think the passages of scripture that are normally quoted are actually speaking against gays. What I believe is that those statements were not the end of the matter. God is still speaking. I think some church uses that as a motto, in fact [The United Church of Christ].”

“So God is now saying something completely different than he ever said before?” Jerry was very wary of the idea of God speaking in modern times. It was, in fact, one of his major issues with Justine.

“Of course God can say something different than he ever has before. Consider Isaiah 56:3-5 vs. Deuteronomy 23:1. In Deuteronomy a eunuch would be excluded from the congregation, but according to Isaiah, the day was coming when such would be welcomed.”

“Being a eunuch is not the same as homosexuality. The homosexual has a choice.”

“I’m not trying to compare the two. What I’m saying is that God can say one thing and then another. God may be unchanging but humanity and human circumstances are not. So God’s commands to us can change with our circumstances. I think that today the applicable scriptures dealing with LGBTQ persons are those that talk about supporting the downtrodden and proclaiming freedom. Contrary to you, and even Mark, I think it’s my duty to make it easier for my gay brothers and sisters to become a full part of the community. I would not be satisfied with pretending that ‘the problem’ doesn’t exist. It’s not a problem; it’s people. We, as Christians, should be all about proclaiming liberty to these captives. I don’t need to explain every scripture that applied to a particular time. The ethical teachings of Jesus lead this way inevitably.”

“I understand that this is an emotional issue for you, Mandy. It’s your daughter.”

“So first I’m inhibiting conversation because it’s personal, and now you inform me that the reason I believe what I believe is that I have a daughter who is a lesbian. How condescending! Have you asked yourself why my daughter was able to come to me and say, ‘Mom, I find that I’m attracted to other women.’ That was because she knew I would still treat her as my daughter and as an important human being.”

“I’m glad there are parents like you,” said Bob. “I have a student who was thrown out of his house after he came out. The things his parents said about him were terrible. He’s living with an uncle and aunt who are somewhat supportive.”

Justine looked back directly at Mandy. “So to you the only response is support. What would you say if your daughter came to you and said, ‘Mom, I find I just have to have cocaine in order to live.’?”

“That would be different, and I think you know it. She was not born a drug addict.”

“But that brings it back to the fundamental issue. I don’t think either Justine or I believe that this is either something someone is born with, nor do we believe it’s harmless,” said Jerry.

Justine nodded. “I know how everyone reacts, but in the end I have to go with what scripture teaches. I don’t think this is something we’re born with any more than any other tendency to sin. I believe it must be overcome in the same way. While I risk making people feel rejected when I reject their sin, I would be doing something even worse if I condone something that is harmful to them and to their immortal soul.”

“I agree,” said Jerry. “It sounds easier to go along with what society is doing. Face it, that’s what’s happening. Society accepts homosexuals, so we in the church decide we have to do it. But it’s not the right thing to do. It’s not the loving thing to do. Even though others proclaim their love for this guitarist in Justine’s church, Justine is the one who really does love him. She loves him enough to rebuke his sin.”

“And this is why,” said Bob, “that I oppose religion so strongly. Even when Mandy comes to a very good conclusion from a human point of view, there’s plenty of scripture to support the much more dangerous attitudes of Justine and Jerry. I just don’t think religion is safe.”

“Even I don’t think religion is safe,” said Mandy. “I think it’s important. I think there really is a God. But ‘safe’ is not a word I’d use for it. Then again, I don’t think atheism is ‘safe’ either. In fact, Bob Norman, you live in a dangerous world!”

“OK,” said Mac. “Let’s not go down that road any further. We’ve already torn up one subject for the day.”

“I want to know what’s been happening in Mark’s life. We haven’t heard from him in two years!” This was Ellen, diverting hostility as she often did.

“Well, I was sent for a year and a half to be an associate in a large church, and then just a month ago, the pastor of a church about 20 miles north of here died, and I was called to take his place. So I’ll be in the area for some time.”

“Excellent!” said Ellen. “Then we can see one another more regularly!”

“Always provided Justine and Jerry want to get beat up,” said Bob darkly.

“You think we got beat up?” asked Justine. “I think it depends on your point of view. Jerry and I have stood for what we believe, based on the Bible, which is the source of our beliefs. So I, at least, am fine with the discussion.”

“And,” said Mark, “that means Justine thinks Mandy and I are ignoring scripture. Each in our own way, of course!”

“You are,” said Jerry, but in the tone of someone who knew the subject had run its course for the evening.

“Same time, same channel?” asked Ellen.

“I’m game,” said Mandy.

And so the revival of the God-Talk Club was accomplished.

 

 

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)

What Honor Demands

When 16-year-old Winifred determined that she was pregnant, she knew she had to take action immediately. It would not be long until her mother would start asking questions. Her mother, in turn, would doubtless tell either Winifred’s father, or her maternal grandfather, depending on how angry she was. If she was really angry, she’d tell both. In any of these cases, the consequences did not bear contemplation.

So Winifred packed a small bag and exited the house through her own bedroom window. Her mother was not the sort of person who could imagine exiting any building through a window, so Winifred was relatively certain this was safe.

She made her way to the home of the Keretian commercial representative.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of characters, places, and events to those in the real world is coincidental.
Copyright © 2013
Henry E. Neufeld

To understand her decision, one must have some understanding of her home town, the small seaport of Aroqra. Despite having a relatively good seaport near several major shipping lanes, Aroqra was a poor town. It was multicultural, not in the sense of having developed a diverse mix of thriving cultures, but in the sense of having collected the remnants of many cultures. Specifically, those who were unable to leave for some reason.

Aroqra could, by the very optimistic, be called a city-state. At the moment it was ruled by someone who styled himself the sultan, though less than a decade earlier, it had been ruled by a king, and before that by a mayor. Few remembered any further back than that. It mattered very little to the inhabitants. The same man had been chief of police through all those changes of government, and he and his people enforced a sort of consensus law as best they could. The mayor, king, or sultan could decree, but the police enforced, and they enforced what they thought they could get by with enforcing. What they couldn’t manage to solve in this way, they let people solve for themselves.

The Keretians were primarily a seagoing people, with widespread commercial interests. They preferred to establish commercial representatives, who served as their ambassadors, wherever they could. In general, they expected these to be treated as embassies, unless they could manage to arrange extraterritorial rights for their citizens. In the case of Aroqra, they had simply stacked silver coins in front of the sultan until he guaranteed them their extraterritorial rights.

But to get back to the world as Winifred knew it, the Keretian ambassador had a son, also 16 years old, who had become quite popular in the community. His name was Malkish, and it was to him, not the building, that Winifred ran.

Malkish hid Winifred in one of the unused rooms of his father’s rather large home. It should be noted that this home was also his father’s place of business, and that it was surrounded by a substantial wall and guarded by armed guards. None of these guards paid any attention to the activities of the teenagers, however.

However long it might have taken Winifred’s mother, Marga, to discover that her daughter was pregnant had the girl stayed home, it took practically no time at all for her to come to that conclusion when she discovered the girl had run away. It took very little time after that for her to discover where Winifred had gone. Winifred was sneaky enough to climb out the window, but not sneaky enough to avoid the many witnesses who had seen her walk from her home to Malkish’s home.

And thus began the trouble …

“Our daughter is pregnant,” Marga said to her husband.

“Pregnant?!” he yelled. “Impossible!”

“Nonetheless it is so.”

“You have failed in your duty as a mother! You should have prevented this.” He would have struck his wife, but he restrained himself. After all, she could enter any room while he slept and she cooked his food.

“It is you,” she said, “who permits her to roam the town. What did you think would happen?” He was unhappy to be reminded of this, but it was true that he was very indulgent of his daughter.

Winifred’s father thought throughout the afternoon. Finally he decided that he would have to take a little trip into the countryside to the west, a trip from which Winifred would not return.

“Honor demands that this stain be erased,” he told his wife.

She had expected precisely this result.

“Bring her to me!” he demanded.

When he found out that Winifred was not available, he was furious. He went out and told his relatives who told their relatives. By the next morning, there was a crowd gathered in front of the Keretian commercial representative’s building.

Yarub, the representative, could not understand what the problem was. The crowd was demanding that he bring out a girl he’d never heard of. He asked his staff, but nobody knew. He asked his guards, and finally someone said that Malkish had brought a young woman into the compound the day before, but that wasn’t particularly unusual, was it?

So Yarub called for Malkish, who admitted that he had hidden the girl in the compound.

“She has sought refuge here,” said Malkish. “Doesn’t honor demand that we protect her?”

Yarub couldn’t see any reason why honor would demand that he protect a random girl, but then he thought of one circumstance in which it would. If Malkish was the father of this pregnant girl’s child, then honor would demand that he protect them both. Keretians were very protective of their offspring, even if they had not been conceived after the wedding.

Yarub allowed Winifred’s father to come into the compound to talk.

“Honor demands that my daughter be given to me, so she can pay for the disgrace she has brought on our family,” said the angry father. He didn’t specify just how the girl would pay.

“But she is carrying my son’s child,” said Yarub. “Honor demands that I protect her and my grandchild!”

One of the guards whispered to Yarub. “What?” he asked. “This man would kill his daughter!”

“I didn’t say that,” muttered Winifred’s father.

“But you didn’t deny it either. That’s what you mean, ‘pay’. You mean to kill her, and my grandchild at the same time! I will not allow her to leave this compound! You will leave immediately!”

“You are a dishonorable man! Who are you to stand between me and my daughter!”

But the guards threw the angry father out of the gate. The crowd continued to yell and occasionally throw rocks, but there was little they could do other than block the entrance.

Marga also told her father what had happened, and explained how her husband was going to kill her daughter if he could, because honor demanded it.

But Marga’s clan did not have the same custom’s as her husband’s.

“Honor demands that we kill the man who has defiled my grandaughter,” said Marga’s father.

Soon there were two competing crowds in front of the Keretian commercial building, one demanding that Winifred be sent out to them, and the other than Malkish be sent out. From time to time, men from the competing groups would get into fights.

Jeloran was a captain in the city police. In fact, his task was criminal investigation. And despite the fact that he had no tools or training, and was paid very little, he took his job seriously.

For some time he observed the groups gathered in from of the Keretian commercial building. He heard the crowds yelling at each other about honor and what it demanded. Perhaps, he thought, honor demands that someone find out exactly what has happened here!

So he started asking around. Very quickly he discovered that Winifred was not known to be regularly in Malkish’s company. Like most of the young people of the town, she hung around the group that hung around him. He was rich, he was flamboyant, he was exotic, and the young people did that. But Winifred was not especially closely connected to him.

He kept asking, and finally he discovered that there was a young man, from the wrong side of town (there were lots of wrong sides in Aroqra). He contrived to corner the young man out of sight of any of the contenders. This was easy to do, as the contenders were all gathered at the gate to the Keretian compound.

“Pregnant?” said the young man. “How could she be pregnant?”

“The usual way,” snapped Jeloran. Surely the young man knew how babies were made.

“We played around,” said the boy, “but we didn’t go all the way. I swear it! But if she is in trouble, she can come home with me.”

Jeloran thought about that for a moment. It would never do! The people who were now outside the Keretians’ gate would burn this poor kid’s house down around him in a moment.

“Don’t tell anybody what I’ve said. I’ll see to it she’s alright. But things will go very badly if you say anything. Understand?”

The kid understood.

Jeloran went and found a healer, and they both went back to the Keretian compound. They made it through the crowd because Jeloran listed so sympathetically to the demands of both sides that he bring Winifred and/or Malkish out with him. Instead, Jeloran went to Yarub’s office.

“I would like to see Malkish and Winifred,” he said.

“I am not going to let any of you barbarians kill my grandchild!” said Yarub. “Honor demands that I protect both the child and its mother!”

“Are you sure there is a grandchild?” asked Jeloran.

“What do you mean?”

“Are you sure the girl Winifred is pregnant?”

“My son said she was. Why would he say that if it wasn’t true?”

“What if he just took her word for it? What if he even knew he couldn’t be the father?”

Yarub sat there silently. “He always did have a soft heart,” he said finally. Then he called both of the young people to his office.

When Winifred saw the healer she tried to run. The healer just said, “What do you think I’m going to do to you, girl?”

“I don’t know!” said Winifred.

“Are you actually pregnant?”

“No. I thought I was. I was late. I now know I’m not.”

“Could you have been the father?” Yarub asked Malkish.

“No, father, but honor demanded …”

“Yes, I know. Honor. Everyone is talking about honor.” He turned to Jeloran. “What can we do? Everyone wants to kill someone.”

“Oh, I think this can all be solved, if you’re willing to spend what will be, for you, a small sum of money. The healer here will confirm that the girl is not pregnant. There’s no way he can really be sure at this early stage, but the people out there believe he can. He’ll want his bill paid, by the way. Then your son will swear that he did not have sex with the girl at any time. If the two men, the girls father and her maternal grandfather are satisfied, then the crowds will disperse. Then you offer her a job that requires that she go elsewhere for training.”

“In my experience, men around here are not anxious for their daughters to get jobs,” said Yarub.

“That is quite true, but in this case, they are going to have problems marrying this girl off to anyone after this. There will always be a taint. Her father will accept that she’s innocent, because he never really wanted to kill her in the first place. But everyone else will have doubts. But you’ll need to offer a bit of money to keep the father happy.”

“It seems I’m paying a lot for a girl who is not my son’s girlfriend,” he said, looking pointedly at Malkish.

“But,” said Jeloran before the boy could speak, “you’ll end the disturbance at your gates, and you’ll have several people in your debt.”

“True,” said Yarub.

And so it happened that Winifred was recruited for a job in a distant land, and her father gave her permission to accept.

After all the negotiations were complete, Jeloran had one more task to complete. He called Yarub aside.

“There’s a young man,” he said, “who is actually Winifred’s boyfriend. I’m wondering if you could do something for him.”

“And why would I do that?”

“Might I suggest that my honor demands that I do something for him, to reward him for honestly answering the question that led me to the solution to all of this.”

“That’s your honor, not mine.”

“But would it not, perhaps, be helpful for you to have the chief investigator of the city police in your debt as well, a debt of honor? I take my honor very seriously.”

“Oh, I see,” said Yarub. And he did.

(This post was written for and submitted to the One Word at a Time Blog Carnival – Honor.)

 

We Should Have Learned to …

“We’re not going to bother with any of that marching crap,” said Jeffords to his troops. They were his because he was the only one in town with experience in combat, little as that was.

The villagers were lined up, sort of, in front of him. The idea was that he would prepare them to fight in the great war should their baron call for them. He had hated all the details of military life, the drill, the order, uniforms, and theory. What was important was for people to learn to fight.

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

His troops had spears and crossbows. The crossbows weren’t very good, but they were the preferred hunting weapons in the area. Jeffords suspected any real hunters had hidden those crossbows they actually used to hunt, and these were the remnants.

So Jeffords set about teaching the villagers to use those crossbows. Marksmanship was the order of the day, with a little bit of work with the spears (just in case the enemy got that close) on the side.

Then word came that enemy troops were approaching their own town. The baron had called for them. It was time to go to war.


“There’s no point trying to learn to use crossbows effectively,” said Karl. Karl, much like Jeffords, was the only person with military experience in his town. He was convinced that the peasants could not learn to fight properly, and the only possible way they could be used in battle was if you made them into a coherent unit.

“What we need to learn to do,” he told them, “is to learn to point those spears forward together, hold our shields locked together, and march forward together until those spears are sticking inside our enemies.” He did his best imitation of his drill instructor’s voice.

So Karl’s troops drilled constantly until they could make a solid wall of their shields and a nice hedge of their spears.

Then the word came that they must go to war for their baron.


It so happened that Jeffords’ groops and Karl’s troops faced one another when the day of battle came. Karl couldn’t quite suppress his worry as he saw all those troops carrying crossbows. If they were accurate enough for long enough, things could be very tough for his people.

Across the field, Jeffords had his own worries. If those troops across the field could hold that nice wall of shields and move forward with all those spears pointed straight forward, things could get pretty tough for his men. He was remembering how rarely his folks hit their targets, and it looked like this might start at longer range than they’d trained for.

Then the orderly line of troops started to march forward with their shields in a wall. On the other side crossbows began to fire. It was ragged—they’d never really learned to fire in a volley. Most of the bolts ended up in that wall of shields, though an occasional yell indicated a hit.

Jeffords realized the only possibility was for his troops to get behind. He began to yell the order. Unfortunately, nobody had practiced this particular maneuver. In fact, they had barely practiced any maneuvers.

So some chose to run around the right flank, others tried for the left flank, some thought it must be a retreat and started to run away, and there were a few who seemed to thing they should run forward with their spears.

Unfortunately (this time for the other side), some of Jeffords’ troops did make it around and it turned out that they did know a bit more about fighting than Karl’s troops did.

When the battle came to a close, or more accurately wound down due to the dwindling number of participants, there were quite a large number of bodies on the ground. Some of them were pretending, but who could tell?

Jeffords pulled himself up off the ground. His leg was cut wide open and he knew he wasn’t going to be walking soon. He looked at the mess.

“Maybe we should have learned how to march,” he muttered.

Across the field Karl looked around. He was in better shape than Jeffords, but he didn’t have much fight left in him.

“Maybe we should have learned how to fight,” he said.

(This story was written for and submitted to the one word at a time blog carnival: Marching.)

Resolutions

It all started with the resolution passed by the town council.

No, perhaps not. That might be giving it too much weight. It really started when Tomas got stinking drunk that evening. But since the council resolution comes into it, we’ll just have to start there.

It was passed unanimously, and was short and to the point.

Resolved, that some person or persons of courage, skill, and resolution should form an expedition to deal with the depradations of William the Marauder, bringing peace and prosperity to the town and region of Olimur.

Agreed to and signed this 321st day of the 37th year of Arnon the Mayor, by the Council of Elders of the town of Olimur.

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.

“Typical piece of lilly-livered, yellow-bellied swill from our honorable town council,” said Tomas. He had already had too much to drink. One didn’t speak of the elders in that way. Lilly-livered and yellow-bellied they might be, and would likely even admit it privately, but they were the richest men in the town, and they could always hire someone to deal with critics. Critics, yes, but bandits? Not so much!

The bartender only grunted.

“They don’t even have the courage to tell somebody specific to do something specific,” continued Tomas.

“Why should they assume someone would follow orders once they were out the gate?”

Nobody had an answer to that one, so the bar fell silent for a few minutes. Olimur was an isolated town, living off agricultural products from surrounding farms and from good bought from the rare trading caravans that made it there from the mountains to the west or from the coastal areas to the east.

There was a castle just to the south which was known as the Baron’s castle, but there hadn’t been a baron there in as long as anyone could remember, and the idea that there might be a king was the subject of myth. Nobody in town had ever even seen the sea, except for one — Tomas. He had a certain fame here because in his late teens he had signed on with a caravan as a guard, and had actually returned to Olimur.

The silence was broken suddenly by a man at the end of the bar.

“So why don’t you do something about it, hero!”

Nobody could remember his name, but he did some sort of work for the council.

“You need an expedition, not just one man to deal with this,” said Tomas.

“Not if it was a man of resolution, as the proclamation says. You’re a man of resolution, aren’t you?”

Tomas just stared at him.

“I bet you never have been to the sea, or to the mountains. You just went out and hid in the woods like a rabbit, then came back with all those tall tales.”

“I have too . . .” started Tomas.

“Someone who had actually done those things would be able to think of a resolution for this little problem. Someone who actually had seen the mountains and the sea, and who wasn’t himself a lilly-livered, yellow-bellied coward, and a liar to boot!”

If Tomas hadn’t been so drunk, and if he hadn’t felt that his trip to the sea and the mountains was his only real claim to any respect, he might not have done it. If he had even thought he could get by with challenging a minion of the town council to a duel, he might have done that.

“OK, I’ll do it!” shouted Tomas.

“Is that your firm resolution?” The man rolled the word off his tongue and made it sound sort of oily. “Are you truly resolved to do it? Or is this another of your tall tales?”

“I am resolved to do it,” said Tomas a bit more soberly. It seemed that agreeing to deal with William the Marauder was sobering even to one barely able to stand due to drink.

It turned out to be impossible to get anyone to join him on his expedition. Nobody thought he had any chance, and they all preferred that the walls of the town be between them and William. As a marauder, William was a practical man. He could have raided the town any time he wanted to, but then what would he raid next? By being there, the town brought a small trickle of commerce, and supported surrounding farms, and he took his share of everything.

Various villagers were willing to provide Tomas with supplies, and even the council, normally as tight-fisted as any group of people, provided him with a horse. He was fairly well equipped when he left town.

Every so often he wondered why he was going. But then he’d remember the jeering tone of the man in the bar, and the knowing looks of all his friends who, to a man, thought he’d wimp out before the end, and he’d decide he didn’t have any choice. He wouldn’t be able to live in town if he didn’t go. He had to go.

He headed toward the mountains. What he didn’t realize was that William the Marauder had eyes and ears in town and had been planning for him almost from the moment he decided to mount his one-man expedition. So just as he arrived in the foothills, he found himself surrounded by bandits, and herded forward until he was face to face with William the Marauder. He’d drawn his sword, and the bandits hadn’t taken it away from him. He tried challenging William to single combat, but William just drew his own sword jumped forward, and within three seconds at most, Tomas was disarmed.

He thought he was dead, but the bandits didn’t take him that seriously. They beat him up a bit, stripped him to his loin cloth, took all his equipment and his horse. They kept him in camp overnight, and before they left in the morning they tied him to a post they had planted right in the middle of a small stream. His feet were in ice cold water. He wondered how long it would take to die

There’s nothing like the prospect of death to change one’s outlook on a problem. As he resolved the problem into its component parts he began to curse himself for a fool. The council had, of course, never intended anyone to carry out their resolution. It was just something to point to when people complained. They had also carelessly failed to specify how the problem should be resolved.

Here was how it broke down. The real problem wasn’t William the Marauder. It was the council, which did nothing about it. If there wasn’t William, there would be someone else. There was enough fighting power in the town, if it was properly organized, to protect the neighboring farms, and probably make it possible for caravans to come and go much more safely. The question was, where could he find someone who could shift the council from their position and organize opposition to the bandits?

By this time he couldn’t feel his feet any more, and he wondered why he kept trying to figure out a new resolution to the problem when he wasn’t likely to have an opportunity to carry it out. It was then that he realized just how strong his own resolution was. So he started to try to free himself from the post.

He wasn’t sure how long he’d worked on freeing himself, when he realized he had an audience. A flock of sheep and goats was coming down from the hills and coming to drink from the stream. They were accompanied by a shepherd girl.

“I would guess you’ve fallen afoul of William the Marauder and his fine associates,” said the girl.

“Could you please untie me,” he asked.

“I wonder if that would be safe,” she said, sort of meditatively.

“I promise I won’t hurt you. I just don’t want to die here.”

“OK,” said the girl. And while the sheep and goats drank, she went and untied him.

“I think you should probably get out of the area,” said the girl. “I think I can find you sandals, a robe, and perhaps a walking stick, but that’s it.”

“I’m surprised to get even that,” said Tomas. “And very grateful!”

Tomas changed his route. He headed northeast. Nobody went northeast from Olimur. That took him toward the sea, but in a direction where there might be new things. He had also come to realize that the council had not put any time limits on the fulfillment of their resolution. He would take his time, and he would resolve it.

He had seen many towns and castles and had always been disappointed. In every case, he had found that people’s vision was limited to their own little area, and they were satisfied to see things continue as they had now for decades, perhaps centuries, though nobody could be sure of that.

He was coming across a line of hills and looking down into another valley when he saw what looked like a town larger than any he had seen before in his travels. He was not much better equipped. He was riding a mule in place of his horse, and his sword was old, but it was reasonably sharp, and he had made himself a hunting bow as well. As he rode down the trail, the town resolved itself into two walled areas, one on either side of the stream. The farms around looked uncommonly well tended. The road became better as he approached, and he could see that where it left the valley to the northeast it looked better than anything he had seen thus far.

The question, of course, would be whether the sort of person he was looking for would be willing to leave such a fine place to go with him to what would seem to be a poor village beside this town.

But his resolution held, and he entered the town.

That night he listened carefully in the bar. He was interested in the way the town worked, in the individual personalities, and who might be interested in some adventure of a particular type.

Surprisingly, he found plenty of people interested in adventure. It seemed there were more people with swords, bows, and excess time on their hands than he had ever imagined. But they quickly lost interest in conversations with him when they found he didn’t know where any buried treasure was located (or didn’t seem to). They wanted adventure with quick profit. That would solve nothing.

Finally, on his third night, he was joined by a girl. At least that was what he called her. In fact, she was probably in her twenties, and didn’t seem to have suffered the ravages of early marriage and continuous childbearing that characterized women back in Olimur.

“I hear you’re looking for someone to solve a problem for you,” she said.

“Why do you say that?” he asked, surprised.

“Well, you may think you’re very subtle, but the questions you’ve been asking other people, when considered together, resolve themselves into a pretty clear picture.”

“Oh,” said Tomas.

“Is that the best you can do?”

“No.” But he didn’t really know what to say. “Do you have any ideas?” he asked finally.

“Yes. Me.”

“You? What could you do?”

“I can do this,” she said. Then she waved her hand in front of his face, and there was a flash of light that blinded him. “That’s just a sample,” she said, when he had recovered.

Tomas had heard of wizards. He’d even been told they were around when he was working as a caravan guard. But he was pretty sure he had never met one. He certainly had no way to judge one and determine whether she could do what needed to be done.

But he was dazzled, almost as much by her as by her sample spell. She was beautiful. She seemed smart. What was more, she was very sure of herself. No question but that once she had made a resolution, she would carry it through! He was missing her greatest asset, but who could blame him?

It was less than a week later that Tomas found himself traveling southwest toward Olimur with the wizard, half a dozen men-at-arms, a couple of apprentices, and more bright and shining equipment than he had ever seen before.

He remembered one of his employers when he was a caravan guard who told him that there were two types of men in armor. Those who were there for show, who normally reflected the light of the sun and looked very good, and those who were there for action, whose armor usually was dented and much less shiny. The caravan guard hadn’t cared for the former.

He approached the wizard about it, suggesting that perhaps they needed more capable, but less showy guards.

“You’ll see,” she said. “What people see depends on who they are and what they expect.”

They arrived at the gate of Olimur, and as he was instructed, Tomas approached the gate ahead of the rest. “Tomas and the wizard Adrina, here according to the resolution of the town council with the ultimate and best resolution for their problem.”

Then he kept riding. The guards were uncertain what they should do, but they didn’t feel qualified to challenge a wizard (they might have thought differently had they known she was just a girl), and so they allowed the travelers to pass unmolested.

When the council saw that Adrina was just a girl, they were careful to have her followers disarmed before they came before the council but they didn’t bother taking anything away from Adrina herself. They assumed she was some kind of impostor, and they were angry with Tomas, but they weren’t afraid.

“Why have you brought this girl to us?” they said. “We authorized you to deal with William the Marauder, not to bring some other people to the town.”

“Silence!” said Adrina, and instantly the one councilor fell silent. His lips still moved, but nothing was heard.

Another councilor yelled for guards, but suddenly the door slammed, and somehow the guards were unable to open it.

The council and the guards weren’t very sophisticated, and by the standards of the larger world, neither were they very rich. It wasn’t long before they agreed to go along with her plans.

Even though she was just a girl, everyone expected the great wizard Adrina to go out and challenge William the Marauder, thus resolving all problems in one move. But instead she set up guards and patrol routes involving the various farms. Then she sent Tomas as her emissary. William agreed to plunder elsewhere and to leave Olimur and caravans going to and from it alone in exchange for his life. By this time Tomas was so convinced of  Adrina’s power, that he presented this with the proper confidence, and William saw wisdom and went along.

Back in the town, various of the town elders began to retire or disappear. This usually happened right after they had tried to some scheme over on the wizard Adrina.

It was heard that they complained to Tomas. They thought he had played fast and loose with their resolution.

“You should be very careful what you resolve,” said Tomas. “Someone might actually carry it out.”

And that became a proverb around Olimur, long after everyone had forgotten Tomas, and the council’s resolution.

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

The Swing over the River

“And then I let go when I’m at the farthest point out, drop into the river and swim to the far shore. The current will be helping me.”

“And if you can’t make it?”

“I’ll come up against that rock.”

“What rock? I can barely see anything.”

“There’s a rock in the water just where the river turns. If I can’t make it to shore, I will almost certainly end up at that rock.”

“And if you miss?”

They could both hear the roar of the rapids below.

“If I miss, I’ll die, and you’ll think of another plan.”

“I don’t think there is another plan.”

“Let’s get going, then. The bandits can’t be far behind.”

This is a work of fiction.
Copyright © 2011
Henry E. Neufeld

Sheldon looked around. The ragged group of refugees had pretty much fallen where they stopped. In the darkness with just a waning moon, he couldn’t see their faces, but he knew there would be no hope. They’d been forced further and further south, and everyone knew one couldn’t ford the river here. Soon they would all be killed.But this kid thought he could swing out over the river, and get near enough to the other bank to avoid the rocks. He maintained that the current at that point would push him in the right direction. Not only that, but he’d have to do it with a rope tied around his waist. Once that rope was tied at both ends, they’d run another one, and let the people cross on the one rope while holding the other.

It would be the end of the road for their mule, who was carrying the supplies. It was the kid again who had inclued that much rope in their load. He seemed to think there were few things that couldn’t be solved with the proper length of rope. Whether the refugees could cross the river in that manner remained to be seen. Sheldon doubted they’d all make it.

The kid looked at the rope hanging from the tree. The memories were strong. The little river near his home, not too swift, but very muddy, and considered somewhat dangerous, especially for the very young. He’d only been five years old the first time he tried to swing out over the river, much too young. Nothing had ever stopped him. No amount of orders, no punishments, no matter how severe, could keep him away from the rope swing. And he was good.

As he looked at the river below in the moonlight, he realized how fragile were his plans. There was no room for error. If he was any less skilled than he had said, he would land either amongst the rocks on this side or in the middle of the stream, where he would have no chance to reach the other bank before being swept around the turn and caught in the rapids.

Then he heard his father’s voice. “It’s dangerous. It’s a waste of time. You need to learn to do useful things.” His father was very fond of useful, practical things. The swing over the river wasn’t useful. Fun, yes, but not useful. His father hadn’t understood fun.

He positioned himself as far back as he could, to get the most momentum. “What do you think now, Dad?” he muttered, and launched himself over the river.

He didn’t have time to think. He just reacted. One moment he was hanging from the rope, and the next he was dropping toward the water. He had time for just one thought: This is the biggest thrill I’ve ever experienced. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Sheldon felt somewhat different. He only caught glimpses of the kid in the river. He thought he wasn’t close enough to the far bank. Then he saw him crawling out on the rock. He had come up against the rock–barely.

At that moment all the kid could think was: Too bad I can’t tell my dad. Some useless activity!

(This story has been submitted to the One Word at a Time Blog Carnival: Swings, though I think it’s mildly off track for that!)

The God-Talk Club Defines Cult – I

Ellen brought everyone their food and then sat down herself and joined the group.  They were no longer surprised, as this had become a habit with the group, and they all knew Ellen had an arrangement with the owner.

“So why don’t you just let one of the other waitresses serve us?” asked Bob.

“Because I like to do it.  It just feels right.”

“I’m still surprised that you just work as a waitress.  You’re so smart; you could do anything you want,” said Bob.

“But what I want to do is this.  Why is that so hard for you to understand?”

“Bob’s a bit of an elitist,” put in Mac. “According to him, if you’re smart enough to be a scientist, then you should.”

“I’m not an elitist; I just like people to live up to their potential.”  It was rare for Bob to be offended, but he looked offended now.

“But doesn’t it matter what they want to do?” asked Mandy.

“I just can’t see how someone would want to be a waitress if she had other options,” Bob replied, but he was looking at Ellen.

“I think what I want to do is the second most important thing, right after what God wants me to do,” said Ellen.

Jerry said “Amen.”  Bob favored Ellen with a disgusted look.  Mac said, “Well, I agree with the ‘want’ part, anyhow.”

“Ellen,” said Justine, “Why don’t you tell us what you like about being a waitress.”

“I like making people happy.  I like meeting people and getting a chance to chat with them.  Sometimes it’s silly, sometimes it’s annoying, but I’m learning alot while I work here.  It also gives me a chance to be a witness.”

“You mean your boss is OK with you proselytizing?” asked Bob.

“No, not at all.  I don’t want to proselytize.  But my regular customers eventually find out who I am.  Tell me, Jerry.  Haven’t your conversations with me changed your view of Mormons?”

“Well, I still think you’re wrong.”  He grinned.  “But yes, I think I do understand better how you can believe what you do.”

“See?” said Ellen.  “I’m doing some good here.  How many other jobs would have given me a chance to talk to Jerry.  And I’ve learned many things from him as well.  And from all of you.”

There was a pause.

“But that’s just a benefit.  I enjoy serving people.  That’s why I bring the food here even when I’m not on the clock.”  She paused and grinned mischievously at Bob.  “Besides, it annoys you, and I admit I enjoy annoying you.”

There was a moment while everyone was stunned.  Ellen had never needled anyone; it just seemed contrary to her personality.  They wondered what would happen.  Bob was already offended by Mac’s charge of elitism.  Would this make him really angry?

But Ellen had read him right.  Bob laughed.  “OK, you win this round,” he said.  “But I’ll be back for more.”

“But I have a question for all you good Christians,” he continued, “And it has to do with Ellen and her faith.”

“Shoot!” said Mandy.

“Ellen is LDS.  I read up on their beliefs on the internet the other day.  I found any number of Christian sites that attack their beliefs and call them a cult.  What makes a group a ‘cult’?”

[For official LDS information, see mormon.org.  For an example of an orthodox Christian apologetics ministry, see Christian Research Institute.]

“Well,” said Jerry, “I call any organization that claims to be Christian but doesn’t uphold orthodox Christian doctrines, such as the Trinity, the authority of the Bible, the incarnation, they atonement, and salvation by faith a cult.  Often they’re smaller organizations and demand extreme personal loyalty.”

“There are more than 13 million Mormons.  That’s not small as denominations go.”

“Doesn’t that offend you?” asked Bob.  “He’s just called you a cult, and he certainly doesn’t think that’s a good thing.”

“Well,” Ellen replied, “You think my beliefs are stupid, don’t you?”

“Well … ”

“Be honest!  I know you think all of us believers are a few sandwiches short of a picnic.”

“OK, I’ll be honest.  I can’t imagine how you can both be as intelligent as you all appear to be and still believe such ridiculous things.”

“So why should I be offended? I believe that through Joseph Smith and our movement God chose to restore the true gospel that had been lost by the churches of ‘orthodox’ Christianity.”

“But you don’t accept the doctrine of the Trinity, and you accept scripture that is not part of the Bible,” Jerry exclaimed.

“But where in the Bible is the Trinity defined?  We accept that there are three distinct beings, united in purpose.  I think we’re more biblical than you are.  Your doctrines come from early church councils, not the Bible.”

“But the Trinity is a Biblical doctrine.  All the elements of the doctrine are there in scripture.  All the councils did was pull the definition together into one place.”

“And I believe the councils were wrong,” said Ellen.

“And you say you believe this on the basis of the Bible, but in reality you base your belief on the Book of Mormon.”

“I believe God revealed himself through the Book of Mormon, yes.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t believe the Bible.  I believe orthodox Christianity did not preserve the Bible as they should.  And you have added much to the Bible through various writers and your confession of faith.”

“No, confessions of faith and other writers don’t supercede the Bible.  You accept the Book of Mormon as superceding the teaching of the Bible.”

“I could debate that, but I’d rather ask you whether your church requires people to accept the Westminster Confession.  Do you?”

“Well, yes, we do.”

“Why don’t you just ask them to accept what the Bible teaches? Why do you have to define it more?”

“Well, because many people have misinterpreted the Bible.”

“I agree.  We just disagree as to who has it right and who has it wrong.”

“Which always makes it interesting for an atheist such as myself,” said Bob.  “I not only have the question of whether there’s a god or not, I have a variety of different Christians, all of them claiming I should believe their particular detailed doctrines.”

“I’d suggest that the question of God’s existence might be primary, and that most of the rest of these discussions are rather trivial,” said Mandy.

“Trivial?” exclaimed Jerry.

Bob laughed.  “You see, you guys can’t even agree on what’s important.”

“I’d suggest that you get to decide what’s important,” said Mandy.  “If you look at this as a decision between various groups of people and whether they understand God correctly or not, you’ll always find things confusing.  A spiritual journey is personal in so many ways.  Who you make the journey with is just one aspect.  You don’t even have to agree on everything in order to enjoy the journey together.”

[To be continued …]

The God-Talk Club and Haiti

*“I don’t understand how you can believe in a loving God in the face of what we’re seeing on the news right now,” said Bob Norman, bringing the small talk to a halt.  In that informal way they had, the God-Talk Club was now in session!

“It is difficult, isn’t it?” said Jerry to the group as a whole.  Bob looked surprised at Jerry’s response.

“You do believe in a loving God, though?” said Bob, making it a question by his tone.

“Well, yes.  But I don’t believe that I have all the answers.”

“You’ve just shattered Bob’s impression of fundamentalists,” said Mandy.

“I’m not a fundamentalist,” Jerry retorted.  “I’m conservative, I’m evangelical, I’m orthodox.  I’m not a fundamentalist.”

“But Bob thinks you are,” Mandy insisted.

“I bet Bob thinks you are a fundamentalist,” said Jerry.  “Don’t you?” he continued, turning to Bob.

“Well yes,” said Bob.  “I have a hard time telling the difference between you various religious people.  There’s always the fact that you believe in God and I don’t.  That’s such a large difference that distinguishing one denomination from another just takes too much energy.”

“Hmmm!  Me as a fundamentalist.  That takes some getting used to.”  Mandy managed to combine shock and innocence in her look.

“But all this doesn’t answer my question,” said Bob.  “Just how do you deal with it?”

“It’s difficult for me, I admit,” said Jerry after a pause.  “I know that God is the creator.  I know that He takes responsibility for everything (Isaiah 45:7).  But just because I admit it’s difficult doesn’t mean I don’t have any sort of answer.  It just means it’s difficult!”

“So give,” said Bob.  “Do you believe God is punishing Haiti for its sins, like Pat Robertson?”

“Well, I believe Amos 3:6 -‘Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?’ (ESV)  God is responsible for everything, which makes the question difficult.  But unlike Pat Robertson, apparently, I believe that God has as much against this town as he has against Haiti.  Rather than thinking that God did this to Haiti, I think it happens because this is a sinful, dangerous world, and thus such disasters are possible.  It was Haiti this time.  It might be a tornado coming right through this building next time.”

“But how does that make God a loving God?” asked Bob.

“It doesn’t.  I believe God is a loving God because He is with each and every person in disaster.  He doesn’t prevent it, but he goes through it with us.  He’s right there.”

“I think the way God shows his love is through us,” said Justine.  “My church already has a team ready to leave.  We’re just waiting for the right moment.  Our folks are builders, and they won’t be needed for a few days, so we don’t want to go in too early.”

“I always wonder about these church teams,” said Mac.  “Amateurs can mess up the works.”

“I expect that from Bob, but not from you!” said Justine.  “How do you know we’re amateurs?  In fact, we have a very qualified team and they’ll be going in with all the proper support, coordinated with the proper authorities.  I don’t know the details, but we’ve taken years building a properly certified response team.”

“I’m sorry Justine,” said Mac.  “I didn’t realize.  I had just heard of a group driving into the country from the Dominican Republic that hadn’t done their homework.  Fortunately they were turned back.  That kind of people just get in the way.”

“I heard that some Christian groups are sending in pastors.  What do these people need with pastors?  They need food and water, not to mention getting dug out of the rubble!”  Bob was looking annoyed again.

“I think that’s a pretty narrow attitude,” said Mandy.  “Why do we send grief counselors in after a disaster?  People need more than physical relief.  I agree there must be some priority, but many of the Haitians are Catholic.  I think last rites would be important to them.”

“I don’t mean to deny people their comforting superstitions,” said Bob.  “But I wouldn’t want to contribute to it.”

“Surely you don’t let that stop you from giving,” said Jerry.  “I know you’re plain-spoken to the point of being rude, but I think you really care.”

“Oh, there’s a good answer to that.  Richard Dawkins has created a fund for us infidels to give to.  It’s called Non-Believers Giving Aid.  That way we can give without supporting religious organizations.”

“That’s great,” said Ellen.  “I was wondering if you had anything like that.  I’ve given through my church (LDS Aid).”

“I’ve given through my home church,” said Mark (UMCOR).

“Me too,” said Jerry (PCA-MNA).

“Our church as well,” said Mandy (PCUSA).

“I went with the same option as Bob,” said Mac.

“So now that we know we’re all doing something, with Justine admittedly in the lead with an actual team, what more can be done?” asked Bob.

Everyone was quiet for a moment.  Nobody wanted to say “Give more money.”  It wasn’t that they didn’t want to.  Pretty much everyone planned on doing that as soon as they could.  It just didn’t seem to meet the need.  They suddenly felt that the God-Talk Club needed to do something specific.

“OK, I’ll start it.  Justine, is there a way I can give to your team without it going to pay for a chaplain?  That’s just not something I’m willing to do.”

“I can understand that.  I’m going, but I happen to be qualified to do several tasks that are required by the team.  I might preach if I’m invited, but that’s not the purpose of the team.  We’ll be working on housing.  I could designate your money to buy building materials.”  She paused.  “You all do understand we’re not part of he initial response.  It could be weeks before we go in.  It depends on what priorities others set.”

“Yes, we understand that.”  Bob pulled out a checkbook and started writing.  “I’m taking your word on how this is spent,” he added.

In a minute Jerry’s check joined Bob’s.  “I doubt the two of you have ever donated to the same cause before,” said Mac.

“Doubtless you’re right, and it’s even more surprising that it’s a project for Justine’s church.  But this feels right.”

Nobody noticed that Ellen had left until she returned with a couple of other waitresses carrying large plastic cups.  The manager followed.

“This lady here, a regular at our cafe, is going to be taking a team to help rebuild in Haiti.  We’re going to pass around these cups, and I know you will all be generous.”

[While this post is a work of fiction, the aid agencies referenced (except, of course, for Justine’s fictional church) and linked are real and are actively engaged in Haiti relief.  I do believe that the fictional people in my God-Talk Club stand for many millions who are doing their little bit to aid the people of Haiti.  Find a trustworthy agency to support, or a person or team that is going to do the work on the ground and give them your support.]