Click here to return to the 'what the books are about' summary
George and Eileen Anderson
(Click on any title to jump to it, just like that...)
NO SENSE OF JUSTICE
BLEST BE THE BIND THAT TIES
A PILE OF PIZZAS
LETTER TO LIZ
THE NEAT SAMARITAN
THE BEAUT ATTITUDES
BEFORE THE FACT
HOW TO BE VERY, VERY SPIRITUAL
EPISTLE FROM THE GALATIANS
IT PAYS TO ADVERTISE
HE WENT THATTAWAY
OFF THE STREET
GOD WEARS JANDALS
PLAYING FOR SAFETY
MADE WITH HANDS
SCRIBES AND PHARISEES
GETTING READY FOR THE END
THE GREAT GAME
TOO MUCH TO LOSE
9 OUT OF 10
Several years ago, Eileen and I, with the help of four friends, produced a scruffy little magazine called 'Small Cords'. It was intended to be a dig in the ribs at the pomposity of religion, and to point out a few glaring differences between cosy tradition and the radical teachings of Jesus.
But that was years ago. There are few churches which haven't changed a bit since then, and the 'Small Cords' message is no longer as startling as it once was. So - here we go BEYOND Small Cords, beginning where the scruffy magazine left off, and setting out in the direction of the kingdom of God.
Originally this book was a slim fifty pages which a kind-hearted and long-suffering friend produced by slaving for hours over a hot photocopier. It sold out in no time. We hadn't the cheek to ask for a repeat performance on the copier, so we bought an elderly offset press, sort-of learned to work it, and printed a second volume. Which sold out even more quickly. Then we combined the two into a reasonable book of 144 pages...
Since then we've lurched into the 20th century with an XT and put everything on disk. And (now) we've entered the space age, and battled the mysteries of burning and stomping onto a CD-Rom. At our age...
Welcome to 'BEYOND SMALL CORDS'. It's an attempt to nudge religious thinking out of its comfortable rut. An attempt to ignore orthodoxy and take what the Bible says literally. An attempt to put the teachings of Jesus first and foremost, rather than in second place. Here you are...
We hope you enjoy a good read.
We'd hosed down the yard, and Val and me was just off back to the house to get cleaned up. Then I spotted this joker in the lower paddock, sitting on a stump with his back to us.
I whistled Jess, and the dog and me went off to investigate. You can't be too careful these days. Give some folk an inch and you'll have them flogging stuff as soon as your back's turned.
Jess must've got his scent as we went through the gate. She's mean with strangers and was off like a shot. But not her usual run. More like one of her pups. Know what I mean? And never a bark from her.
And as she reached him, it was like he was expecting her. Put out his hand and scratched her behind the ears. Jess can be funny about that. But she just stood there, tail thumping furiously. Then, all of a sudden, sat down at his feet. Just like that.
The fellow half turned as I approached. A Maori in jeans, jandals and tank-top. With a part-filled sack beside him. He grinned affably, showing an irregular row of teeth.
"You're trespassing. What do you think you're doing here?"
He jerked a grimy thumb down the paddock to the creek.
"Looking at that, eh."
Now I'll grant you it's a view worth seeing. Val and me used to take a spell there sometimes. But that was a few years back, when things weren't so busy.
"Doesn't give you the right to trespass, though," I told him.
The Maori gave a half shrug. "The Boss made it. It's His."
That narked me. I don't need that sort of talk from anyone, thank you very much.
"Cut that out, fellow," I told him. "Who the hell d'you think you are?"
I hadn't intended it as a question. But this Maori joker wrinkles his eyebrows, gives a little smile and says:
"Cut that out!" His cheek annoyed me.
"Why?" His smile broadened. "What bugs you? Skin? Clothes?" Then, half to himself. "Wasp."
"Wasp. W.A.S.P. Stands for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. The American definition of a Christian. Probably the Kiwi definition of an angel, eh?"
Funny, I just knew this Maori joker wasn't having me on. I just knew. But I also reckoned I knew what he was going to say next, and I didn't want any of it. I'm used to salesmen. Don't give 'em an inch; attack!
"Okay, fellow, you can leave it right there. If you think you're going to get Val and me all tarted up in our town clothes and off to some church an' that, you're darn well wrong."
I must have said something funny. At least he laughed like a drain. Then he wiped his eyes with the back of a grubby hand and shook his head.
"Look pal, work it out for yourself. The Boss's Son used to get a rough time at those places, remember?"
Irrationally, I began to argue the opposite way.
"But they're decent folk that go to church, aren't they? What's wrong with that?
He shrugged. "Sure they are. But some of them have got it all wrong. Missed the point. Think they've got to work at it. But that's technique, and technique doesn't switch the Boss on. He likes kids."
"You know - folk acting natural. Nothin' put on. Look!
He plucked at his rumpled tank-top.
"This'll give you a clue, friend," he said. "No robes. No shining armour. Not even a halo. D'you know why? Because it'd be phoney, here 'n' now. Be yourself. If you're His child, what does that make Him...? Have a chat to Him the way you really are. Y'know - deep down inside."
And with a final pat to Jess, he ambled off. I didn't even bother to watch him go, or see if he'd vanish or something. All of a sudden it wasn't terribly important. At last I could see that I'd been trying to battle out something that had been fought - and won - a long time ago.
The only barrier between God and me was my own efforts. The door was wide open. All that was necessary was...
"Gidday, Dad. It's me..."
-------NO SENSE OF JUSTICE-------
Parents? Don't talk to me about parents!
They're responsible for kids running wild. Encourage them, they do.
Look - you're a stranger round here, so I'll tell you a story.
There's a haulage firm about ten minutes drive up the valley. Couple of brothers run it. Their old man set it up 'way back and has been a kind of sleeping partner in recent years.
Seems the younger of the two brothers developed a nasty attack of itchy feet. You know, the old "grass is always greener" syndrome. Couldn't hit it off with the local yokels and wanted to say a final 'hooray' to the valley.
So after a few weeks of being unliveable with - especially to number one son - he fronts up to the old man and spills all.
"Look, Dad" says he, "I want out. There's nothing wrong with the business as far as it goes. But let's face it, you dreamed it up, and it well-nigh runs itself. How about buying me out? Go on - you can afford to."
If anyone asks my advice - which they don't - I'd say a positive "don't". Let the young fellow go and you're asking for trouble. At my age, I know.
But - and it still sticks in my throat - that old man nods, says "why not?" and phones the trusty old family solicitor to shuffle around the necessary papers.
Next thing, young 'un is dashing hither and yon buying airline tickets to romantic places and being measured for travellers cheques, having his photo done for a passport and earbashing everyone who'd listen about where he plans to go and what he plans to do.
Sickening, really. Suppose all that money... Well, he'd been on wages before, ploughing all the profits back into the business, so the novelty just grabs him.
Anyway - grand farewell, off to the airport in something big he's rented from Avis, and the valley settles back into its usual routine again.
Except that everyone seems to drop by at the haulage business to know how the young fellow's enjoying himself.
And the old man produces the latest postcard or letter with all those flashy foreign stamps and reads bits out, while folk go ooh and aah in the right places.
But, sorry, I'm not impressed. You see - I can read between the lines. And the family's little pride and joy isn't content with squandering the dollars on coach trips and conducted tours, clicking his instamatic in the general direction of the ancient monuments.
Not he. The scallywag is into the black sheep business, and working quite hard at the wink wink, nudge nudge aspects of have a Good Time.
If you know what I mean.
You'd think the old man would go burko. Summon said son homeward forthwith and all that. Does he what! Must know what's going on in faraway places with strange-sounding names, and still doesn't turn a hair. And when I start to suggest that a little bit of parental heavy-handedness on little brother seems indicated, he gives me a glance that he must've been keeping in the freezer and tells me to go change round the tyres on the Big Mack, just for practice.
What? Oh, yes. That's what I hadn't intended to let slip, about the young fellow and me being brothers. Still...
So I grit my teeth and keep my nose to the grindstone. You see -I know that kid brother of mine. Doesn't plan things.
And sure enough, disaster strikes. A bit of an overseas economic crisis just happens to coincide with the little lad running out of funds. So one way and another he's stuck abroad with yours truly trying not to say "told you so" every time the old man walks by. And by all accounts he'll be getting a wee bit ravenous if those foreign gentlemen don't feel generous towards impoverished aliens within their borders.
Which they don't. How do I know? Easy. The odd phone call to our embassy over there evokes untold information. So I can't help feeling somewhat smug to learn that junior is probably doing what other tourists are being forced into - helping out on a farm for no more than his keep. Which, by their delightful rural standards, is probably little more than the rations he's doling out to the beasts.
Tough bikkies, that's my reaction.
Then, suddenly, it's all go.
Telegram from the embassy. The young fellow darkens their diplomatic doorstep, surrenders his passport and is being repatriated on the next jumbo out.
Now, I'm not a vindictive sort of fellow. But I don't mind confessing there's a tiny bit of satisfaction lurking somewhere that looks forward to the day that little brother returns to the valley and asks me if there's any chance of a job around the place.
No problem. Of course there's work. In fact I'm reckoning the lube bay could do with someone full-time doing oil changes right now.
It doesn't work out like that, though. The old man hops into the ute and roars off to meet little brother off the city bus at the south of the valley.
So, me, I miss being around for the next bit of the story. I get called up on the r.t. to come with the four-by-four and drag out a rig that's bogged in a soft patch up the road up north. Great. And in this weather.
But I keep in touch. There's any number of neighbours going past with scraps of news.
"He's returned." I know. "Wanted a job." Of course. "Your old man's given him his share of the business back - given, would you believe." He's what? "And there's a big rage on at your old man's; all the food and grog, everyone's invited, and that group from over the hill are going to blast our eardrums all evening."
Wouldn't it rock you. But there's me with work to do, and it's long past closing time before I get back and head for the house. Mud up to the eyebrows, I don't mind telling you.
You should hear the noise. Everyone's having a great time, which is, well - great, I suppose. And through the ranchslider I get a glimpse of brother-dear. Dressed fit to kill and a smile on his face that'd take a banana sideways.
So I make to slip in the back way. A quick shower and bed'll suit me after a hard day like I've had.
But the old man's slipped away from the do and is waiting for me. That's my chance for a bit of straight speechmaking.
I tell him, I really do. I lay it on the line about what his little pride and joy will have been up to in foreign massage establishments. And that despite all that, he re-instates him and organises a first class knees-up.
Then I apply the message. When, say I, in all my hardworking years, have you ever done anything like that for me? It just isn't good enough. As I'm sure you'll agree.
And all he does is smile a little and tell me that I've always been around and can enjoy all the goodies - but it isn't every day that we get the young fellow back, is it?
Like I said. Don't talk to me about parents.
No sense of justice, that's their trouble.
----BLEST BE THE BIND THAT TIES---
I've got to be careful with this one.
Because those of my friends who are still speaking to me are going to think I'm writing about them.
And - of course - I'm not.
Possessive parents is what I'm on about. And this is where my friends come in. Plagued by 'em, some of them are.
I'm not going on about kids who find the old man's "In-by-one-a.m.-sharp-and-no-sniffing-petrol-or-else" edicts a bit restrictive.
There's a stronger hold than that. And some parents never switch it off, even when little Cecil or Debbie have left home and gotten a string of their own brats to dust around.
It doesn't get talked about much. I mean - it's not too flattering for a bloke who's a Dynamic Executive to admit having an uncut umbilical.
But the possessive parent thing triggers off more stereotyped husband-and-wife squabbles than Being Late For Church or a ding in the wing of a new beaut ute.
"How come you seem to act like a child when we go to your parents...?"
"And you just stood there and let them say that to you..."
"No, dear, I don't want to either - it's just that Mother expects us on Sunday afternoons..."
And so on.
There are too many frustrated ambitions simply because the child left Mum and Dad - but Mum and Dad never left the child.
We'd love to live in Australia, but..." Or leave that denomination or this job. Or wear those clothes. But.
And sometimes there's nothing we can get up on our hind legs and have a good row about. Nothing is actually said. It's just that there's a bit of an atmosphere. Or a silence.
Psychic? More than folk realise. Happens too often, too strongly. And when you let your hair down and talk honestly to a close friend or two - you find they know what you mean. They've got the same sort of problem themselves.
Doesn't matter if they're in Stewart Island and the parents are in Kaitaia. There's still some sort of pressure that makes it darned hard to be relaxed and spontaneous about things. Either they've got to conform. Or rebel.
And just to forestall the fanmail (I'm writing to you in love, brother...) that'll complain that if I had kids of my own I'd know how parents feel: we've got four. (One caesar, one forceps, two adopted, if you want to be technical.) And Eileen and me are possessive. It's well-nigh impossible to be anything else when we've put in a seven day week for more than twentyfive years instructing, punishing, despairing, threatening and nagging our little angels. Or course we know best. But that doesn't make our attitude right.
There's a funny answer to the problem of possessive parents.
Not to throw the switch and cut all contact with them. I gather that's the approved Children of God technique. No further contact with pa 'n' ma and the rest of the tribe once you've joined the club.
Dumb. Because that's just another form of bondage. Problems don't evaporate just because you take to your heels with your head in the sand. If you know what I mean.
No - the answer's a simple one.
I'm not kidding, either. Sure, we might have an intellectual hassle over this one. But only because we've been brought up to equate the word "spiritual" with "metaphorical".
Whereas "spiritual" is just as real as anything else.
Or more so.
Anyway, back to getting adopted.
Us evangelicals go on ad nauseum about being born again. Calling God "our Father". And saying we're sons of God.
I'll let you into a secret. It's a fact.
Trouble is, we've made it into a Pretty Religious Cliché.
And then wonder why, at the ripe old age of whatever we are, we're still being hassled by high-tensile apron strings.
Jesus had no doubts who his Father was. Gave Mary and Joseph the slip for three days when he was only twelve... Not very funny when you're on holiday in a strange city.
And his comment about "my Father's business" was a bit of a snub for Joseph. Think about it.
Look - either we've been adopted, or we haven't. Either all our glib little phrases mean something that'll function out in the cold light of day - or they're just nice, mystic hogwash.
Remember what Jesus said? "Call no man on earth 'father'." Guess why he said that...
In fact, if you once get a glimmmer of the reality of being adopted by God when you become a Christian, quite a few things slot into perspective.
The whole family bondage thing, for example. Irrelevant. If your parents are unsaved, they become your friends. If they are believers, they become your brothers and sisters in the Lord.
And the question of continuing parental authority. It's surprising how many parents wave the big stick of "honour thy father and they mother".
Irrelevant again, once we're adopted, that is.
And, look, there's another thing... If God has adopted us - it's his job to look after us. Bring us up. Teach us a thing or two.
Talk to us, even.
Ask him about it. It could be fun.
-------A PILE OF PIZZAS-------
Funny things, women.
Take my Doreen, for example. Intuition, she runs on.
And the funny thing is, it works out often enough for her to say "See - I told you so."
I'm mowing the lawns, and when I get through and put the Masport away, I go into the house and find Doreen making enough pizzas for an army.
"Be handy if someone comes," she says vaguely.
And of course, we're just settling down to stare at the box that evening, when there's a crash and a bang outside. Some joker loses his entire muffler system down by our gate.
I amble outside, nosey-like, and find a rusted-out Triumph Herald with four lads in it. Or under it, rather.
And pretty soon they've got my socket set and a length of number eight and things start getting legal again.
Then Doreen joins us - giving me one of her meaningful looks - and invites them all in.
Of course her pizzas go down a treat. Those lads wade through 'em like they haven't seen food in weeks. And all the time they keep us entertained with a Technicolor® version of what they've been getting up to.
Seems they've come over from Aussie, bought the Triumph in Auckland and are doing Godzone in style. Taking the odd spot of work whenever they can to pay for the benzine, sleeping rough when the weather's okay, and pushing the car up some of our finest hills.
Me, I've been brought up to believe that young fellows should get stuck into some sort of career the moment they leave school.
But no doubt about it, those four are seeing life and meeting people - and they can always settle down when they've had their fling.
Anyway, what with everyone talking at once, it's gone twelve before we realise. So I suggest that they make themselves comfortable in the sleep-out in the back garden. It's nothing flash, but it'll take four at a pinch.
But no, they want to shoot through, and after a bit of a friendly argy-bargy about the dishes - Doreen's funny about letting folk in her kitchen - they all pile into the Triumph, shout their thanks for the pizzas and the lend of the socket set, and take off into the night.
Well, we leave the dishes and hit the hay. Go out like a light too, I can tell you.
Now, that's when I have this dream, see.
Okay, I reckon I dream most nights. Usually some stupid sort of jumble - nothing worth remembering or anything.
But this time it's different. Real, almost, if you know what I mean.
There's me and Doreen in this big park. Well, rolling countryside more like, but the grass is short and there's trees everywhere.
And we're holding hands, running down the slope. Like when we was in the primers, her and me.
Then, all of a sudden, there's those four lads. They come galloping past us, yahooing happy as Larry. And one of them calls out - the short one with the red hair - "Come on, now, all together. Jump!"
Don't laugh, will you. Like I say, it's just a dream. But we're flying. And it's one of those special dreams, the sort I've only had - oh, perhaps twice since I was a kid.
And we're zooming up into the air. Not all that high, really, but in and out of the trees. Peach trees, too. All in blossom. And Doreen and me sort of play chase, and she goes too close to the branches and gets some of the blossom in her hair.
We go after the lads. The ground drops away, so we find ourselves hundreds of feet up above the wide valley. I'm not scared, mind. Just happy, with an excited feeling in the pit of my stomach.
If you've ever dreamed anything like this, you'll know what it's like to feel the wind whistling past your ears, and the way you twist your hands when you want to bank or turn.
Then the lads call to us.
"Quickly now. Up. Up. He's waiting for us."
Can you picture what it's like to dive from a great height, getting faster and faster all the time? Now turn that dive upside down. We're diving up. And there's no effort. Just speed. The rush of the air, growing cooler as we rise. The brilliance of the sun, and the heartaching sense of expectancy.
And, all of a once I'm awake and it's morning.
Now, like I say, I reckon I dream most nights. But this is something different. Maybe this is why I don't say much over breakfast.
Fortunately, Doreen's a bit quiet. Perhaps the late night got to her. So I kiss her, say hooray, and back the Datsun out of the garage.
And blowed if I don't find myself behind that Triumph with those four lads. They have to stop for the lights at the end of the road, so I cut in on the nearside, sound a fanfare on the horn and wind down the window.
They wave and shout and carry on. Folk look at us, but so what! Then the lights change, and while the guy who's driving is trying to sort out the gears, the short fellow with the red hair leans out and calls to me.
"Say - you fly pretty well. For an oldie."
And they're off.
-------LETTER TO LIZ-------
If I don't get this off my chest, I'm going to explode!
Our holiday was ruined for us, utterly and completely wrecked by Joe and May's headstrong boy larking around.
Oh, things had started off quite well - it always helps if you pool transport and book accommodation together. And it had been one of the best conventions we'd ever attended - good speakers, first-class musical ministry, and fine weather throughout.
But it was on the trip back that we had trouble. May's boy went missing. Somehow they'd got the impression he was with us, and of course we'd been thinking he was with her and Joe. So it wasn't until we'd travelled a whole day - making good time for once - and were being shown our rooms at the new place you'd recommended... And we all suddenly realised the kid wasn't there.
Joe had the cheek (you know how overbearing these older men become) to suggest that it was as much our fault as theirs, and insisted that we went back with them to look for him.
May and Joe were upset, naturally. But as I kept saying, he is twelve, you know, and you'd never have had this trouble if you'd brought him up properly.
And where do you think we found him after all that? Back at the convention site, would you believe. It seems that the speakers get together for a bit of a post-mortem afterwards, and he'd just gatecrashed. Breezed in with all the cheek in the world.
Liz, without a word of a lie, that boy was calmly sitting there with those important men, not only asking questions, but discussing things with them, just as if he were as good as them.
Joe grabbed him and marched him out. Probably too awed by all the clergy to say anything. But May was furious. "Look", she shouted, "who on earth do you think you are, going off like that? Your Dad and I have gone nearly frantic looking for you."
And it was then that the boy just shocked us all. Well, I mean - look, Liz, you and I have always known that May got married rather quickly. Though I've never said anything to her about it.
But that boy of theirs just shook his head slightly, looked Joe straight in the eye and said "Why were you looking for me? Didn't you know I'm working for my Dad now?"
And Joe just stood there. Never even punished him. That's why I'm writing to you, Liz. Let's face it - you're not as young as you used to be, and your boy John has been running wild by all accounts. Living rough in the backblocks I hear.
With you and May being cousins there's always the chance that those two boys might get together sometime. Then there'd be trouble, mark my words. And I wouldn't want our Simon getting dragged in as well. We've got plans for him in my husband's fishing business and nobody's going to upset that!
Anyway, that's enough for now. I do hope you have more success with your lad than Joe and May are having with theirs.
It was that time of an evening. The percolator was bubbling, and the conversation was ebbing and flowing about nothing in particular.
Somebody - probably little Carol - had made a mild funny about Paul. Saint P. the apostle. Not P.McCartney or P.Stookey - that'd never do.
And the remark had got up the nose of young Edward. He'd come with Terry and Jo and didn't really know any of us.
"Er," he said, "I don't think we should make remarks like that. Paul was mightily used of God. Inspired to write most of the New Testament, which was a wonderful privilege."
Nobody responded. Edward was disappointed. I think he was expecting us all to not wisely and murmur an amen or two.
He tried again.
"In fact," he said, settling his heavy-framed spectacles on his nose with a lean forefinger, "I believe that the entire Bible is inspired from beginning to end. Inspired and infallible. The Word of God, containing everything that God has revealed to us. I believe it all, not just bits of it."
Pause. I wondered who would take him on.
A low rumble from the beanbag in the corner indicated that Big Jimmy was awake.
"Worshipping idols used to be punishable by stoning," he growled to no-one in particular.
"Are you saying I'm an idolator?"
Big Jimmy seemed to notice him for the first time and squirmed his bulk around in the beanbag to get a better view.
"Yes and no, young fellow. Only if the cap fits."
"I can't see that believing the Bible make me an idolator. And I do believe it; all of it! What are you, then? A modernist? I suppose you think Genesis is a myth. That Isaiah was written by a bunch of Temple priests after all the events predicted had actually taken place. That the miracles were put in to impress simple peasants. And a monk known as 'Q' wrote the gospels."
It was quite a speech. Little Carol said quietly "Seconds away: round one."
"Jimmy's not a modernist, Edward," I said. "He's just having a bit of a go at the cliches you used about the Bible."
"He called me an idolator," persisted young Edward. "Just because I have a proper reverence for God's Word."
"Hang on," interrupted Terry. "There's more to idolatry than barbecuing babies before Baal."
"Moloch," murmured little Carol. "But the alliteration was nice."
Terry pulled a face at her and continued.
"There's the question of attitude - to a person or a thing. What may start off as, say, appreciation can grow bit by bit into something stronger. Up through respect and int reverence. If you don't watch out, you're into a form of idolatry before you realise. A typical example is found in the word we use for minister - 'reverend'. Any good dictionary'll tell you it means 'worthy of reverence or worship'. But folk use it, just the same."
"I don't see what any of that has to do with my believing the Bible is the Word of God," said Edward, shrugging.
"Gotcha!" chuckled little Carol.
"What Carol is crowing over," explained Jo, "Is that you have neatly committed near-blasphemy and idolatry in one short sentence. Despite your being orthodox by the standards of most cliche-wielding Christians. You see, Edward, the 'Word of God' is a Person, not the title of a book. And no matter how important the Bible is, no way is it right for anyone to take the title of the Lord Jesus Christ and mis- apply it."
"Oh," said Edward, deflated. "I hadn't thought... I mean, everybody... Though that doesn't make it right, does it. Okay, I can accept that. But - alright, then - what do you say about the Bible?
"That's clever," Jimmy nodded. "Always throw the hot potato back. Let me see, now. The Bible - well - it exists. It's the holy book of the Christians.
There was a pause. A long pause.
Carol was obviously bursting to make some clever comment. Finally young Edward broke the silence.
"Is that all you've got to say? That is exists. What about being profitable for reproof and doctrine? And making you wise unto salvation?"
Big Jimmy held up one huge hand.
"Enough, young fellow. Enough! You run before you can walk. Cast you mind back to when you first met the Lord, okay? What happened after that?"
Edward looked suspiciously at Jimmy.
"Well, the same as happens to everyone, I suppose. I started going to church and reading my Bible. Then I..."
"Did anyone else in your church read the Bible?" asked Terry.
"Of course they did. They all did."
"That's the trouble, said Jimmy solemnly. "Everybody does it. So the new recruit follows the pattern. Edward, my lad, the point I'm making is that it's easy to do the right things for the wrong reasons. And it's easy to do all kinds of wrong things without stopping to ask why. Take the Bible. All kinds of religious groups claim they get their doctrines from it, yet they are at loggerheads with others often enough on those very doctrines. How come? Simply that they go to the Bible instead of going to God."
"But don't they pray about it?"
"Only as a token gesture," said Jimmy flatly. "Okay, it's reasonable to nut things out from what you can study in scripture. But unless God actually confirms something by direct revelation, it isn't worth arguing over."
"Remember how we've had the Catholics persecuting the Reformers? Then the Reformers - especially the Anglicans - had a go on the Methodists and Quakers. The Brethren and Sallies used to be put down - then when the Pentecostals appeared they had a go on them. And of course the Penties get highly irate about the House Church thing."
"What's the answer, then?" demanded Edward.
"Hang loose," said Terry. "Choose to accept certain ways of thinking, perhaps because of the way you've been brought up, perhaps because they make more sense to you. But unless God has given you a personal revelation about them, don't go barrow-pushing."
"Ever seen people fight over the Second Coming?" asked Jo. "Pre-mill, post-mill, a-mill - they've all got their charts and references. Ever had a Brethren bloke give you an earbashing on Dispensationalism? Or a British Israelite bore you to tears with irrefutable proof that we Anglo-Saxons are part of the Ten Lost Tribes? It's all a product of good old human reasoning. If those folk had got it from God they wouldn't be so dogmatic"
"I don't follow you, said Edward, dubiously.
"Simple," Jo explained. "If God tells you something - let's say you've always thought that Evolution was true, then all of a sudden He says no, it's creation in seven literal days of 24 hours each..."
"Six days, you heretic," said Carol. "I mean, I can't let that one go, can I?"
"...Six literal days then, pedant. Well, if God tells you, you just know. There are no doubts and no questions of alternative interpretations. So you're totally convinced. But at the same time you know you couldn't have believed that way without God getting in on the act. So you don't get all heated with your evolutionist chums; you just tell 'em to ask God direct. After all, that's what it's about. Relationship and revelation. Not reason.
"Funny, that," admitted Edward. "There have been times when I've known something. Really known. It's - different, somehow."
Young Edward paused and looked thoughtful.
"I say," he continued, "you don't think we've been missing the point completely by not asking God about everything? I mean - perhaps we have taken meetings and prayers and things for granted, when God really wanted something totally different. Totally radical."
His eyes sparkled.
"Coffee, anyone?" I said firmly.
FOOTNOTE FOR EGGHEADS...
If you think Big Jimmy was coming on a bit strong with his accusations of idolatry - well it's happened before with something God has done.
Does 'Nehushtan' ring bells? No, it's not an attack of hay fever or a New Wave group. Just that when Moses and the Israelites (that sounds like a New Wave group) were in the wilderness, they were attacked by serpents. God ordered Moses to make a brass replica of a serpent, stick it on a pole, and whoever looked at it would recover.
Except that a few hundred years later. Hezekiah found the Israelites were offering incense to the aforesaid replica and worshipping the thing. He jumped up and down, smashed it to bits and said (wait for it) 'Nehushtan' - it's just a bit of brass.
I'd guess there were a few indignant blokes in the crowd that day who said (correctly) that God had ordered the thing to be made. And that it had saved the lives of untold thousands in its time.
But not good enough reason for making an idol of it.
So - the same with the Bible. An awful lot of time, money and energy is put into studying it. And there is a dogmatic gung ho attitude in certain groups towards it that is unhealthy.
The object of the game is to work on perfecting a two-waycommunication with God in a real life setting. Anything else is secondary.
Let's keep it that way.
(REFERENCE: NUMBERS 21.8 2 KINGS 18.4)
It's a nostalgic business, Christmas.
Even with the temperature around twentyfive. And ice only when Val forgets to defrost the fridge.
But, like I say, it's nostalgic.
We've got that mellow feeling. Cards on a string round the walls. Tinsel and paper chains. A tree with lights that blink nervously.
And Ted and Maggy have dropped in from next door to escape the racket their youngsters are making.
So we're just sitting quiet. No stereo. Even the box is switched off. Just the tranny.
It's doing something traditional. Carols and all that.
Then some bloke with one of those warm, velvety voices - know what I mean? - starts read the Christmas story.
"And suddenly," he says, "there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men'."
The bloke on the tranny starts to describe that first Christmas. Shepherds, surprised by an angel who heralds the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. Then a white-robed choir, singing fervently...
But we never get to hear the finish.
Because there's a great clatter of iron-tipped boots on the patio. The ranchslider is jerked open with a heave that just about lifts it off its tracks.
The tranny goes base-over-apex onto the floor.
And a bunch of soldiers in combat gear burst into the room.
"Don't move, anybody."
We don't. Okay, we're terrified. But what's happening to our eyes? Everything's gone blurry.
We can't see, for goodness sake.
"Now slowly. Real slowly. Get up, turn around. Lean both hands against the wall."
Fumblingly, we obey.
And one corner of my brain is telling me that they are very efficient. It's not a joke. And they aren't Kiwis.
They frisk us. Roughly, expertly.
Val, beside me, makes a little movement. I guess she's just about to faint.
"Oh God..." she says.
"You! Turn around. What did you say?" shouts the leader.
She turns and tells him.
There's a pause that seems to last for hours. I can hear all sorts of trivial things - a huhu bug batting its head against the window. Tinsel and paper chains rustling in the breeze.
"Check with base," he snaps to one of the soldiers.
There's a crackle of static. A rapid series of questions and answers. But not in English. Where in heaven's name are they from?
The soldier with the walkie-talkie speaks to the leader. He sounds, well - relaxed.
Incredibly, we start seeing again. Blurry, first. Then sharp and technicolor like before.
And these jokers are shaking our hands and slapping our backs. Us - we're just glad to be alive.
Then Val and Maggy are talking at once, demanding to know what they're at. Ted and me are a bit more polite. I mean, they could do that to our eyes again, couldn't they?
"Don't you recognise us?" queries the leader. "You should, seeing you're ours."
This doesn't compute, so he tries a different tack.
"What were you doing when we came in?"
Ted points to the bust tranny. He explains.
"It's a Christmas programme, see. This bloke was telling us about the heavenly choir that sang when the Messiah's birth was announced."
And that makes the soldiers crack up. Now, the military haven't exactly got a reputation for reverence, but there are limits. I tell them so.
The leader raises an eyebrow.
"Don't you folk understand your own language? 'Heavenly host' - host means army. And nobody sang. We were on duty that night, same as we are now. Flushing out a few pockets of resistance."
He strides over to the ranchslider and beckons his men. They file out, calling goodbye as they go.
"Hang on a minute," I say. "You can't just go off like that. There's a heck of a lot we want to ask you."
"No need for questions. Look, our job is to get things ready, understand. For something important - like last time. Just keep your eyes open. But don't expect things to be all cozy and traditional and religious. The Boss isn't like that."
With a clatter of iron-tipped boots on the patio, he's away.
And for a while, we just stand there, with the night breeze rustling the tinsel and the paper chains.
* * *
-------THE NEAT SAMARITAN-------
A certain man drove from Cambridge to Hamilton and fell among Stormies who relieved him of hubcaps and stereo. Then they departed, leaving his car overturned. And by chance there came a family on their way to worship, for it was the Day of Rest. But as it was the husband's lot to give out the hymnbooks and the wife to sing a solo, they resolved not to stop.
But a certain youth saw the unfortunate man and had compassion on him. However, this youth did lack all the qualities possessed by those who earlier had passed by. For he toiled not, neither did he spin, and was thus a Burden to the State. Moreover, one ear had aforetime been pierced to hold a circlet of precious metal. And on such parts of his body as were visible to public gaze were designs and legends, curiously fashioned with ink and pins after the custom of them who have been held in bondage and houses of correction.
And behold, the youth did halt his vehicle, and with cunning use of a towrope did right the car of him who was overturned. Then did he pour in oil and water to sump and radiator. And, lest other parts of the vehicle should privily prove to be shot, he towed him to the pad wherein he dwelt. Diligently he laboured into the night, until the designs on his persons were nigh to being obscured by the grime resulting from his industry.
On the morrow, when the man departed, the youth refused all recompense, saying: yea, for she will be right. And if she be not right, nor yet doth go after the manner of a bomb, eagerly will I again toil until the machine shall vouchsafe satisfaction unto thee. Which now of these, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him who fell foul of the Stormies?
This kingdom business works.
In the oddest ways, perhaps. But it works.
Take, f'rinstance, our burglary.
We'd gone to town for our usual weekly spending spree. Came back tired but happy to find both ranchsliders wide open.
Do you know the sinking feeling? We tiptoed cautiously indoors to find we'd been given a thorough going over. Nothing damaged, but drawers turned out and mattresses up- ended. And a lengthy list of goodies gone.
Kitchen and workshop equipment, mainly. All the usual items that can be sold no-questions-asked in a pub for a few dollars.
It's perishing well traumatic. And it wasn't helped by the gallant police being too busy to come out. Nor by the fact that we kept noticing further things missing for some time after.
Prolongs the agony, that does.
Now, you need to know that we don't have insurance. That's a personal thing with us, but due to a couple of incidents we had decided to leave that sort of business strictly between us and God some years ago. Both times (a brand-new vehicle trapped by the tide, and a roof ripped off in a hurricane) we had comprehensive insurance, but the companies concerned had written the fine print, so all we got was a slow, sad smile.
So this time, after our reactions levelled out (it takes a while) we said "okay, God, it would have been the easiest matter to get us back home early or something. But you didn't. Over to you, then."
Three months later (to the day; some things are a bit precise) a neighbour dropped in. He wanted to run power cables across our land as a short cut.
We weren't excited. A view is a view. We have nice views.
He pointed out that the cables could go across a bit of swamp that was out of sight from our house. In which case, said we, fair 'nuff. Go for it.
At which remark he pulled out a loaded chequebook and wrote us one for eighteen hundred bucks: half of what he saved in taking the power wires the short way round.
That cheque replaced our nicked goodies with brand new items. Just like that.
I'm not saying don't insure. Mind you - it's usually a good idea to read the fine print and make sure you really are covered, and not just bamboozled by a fast-talking salesman.
But what I am saying is this. Life's getting a bit complicated. Maybe you've noticed. And statistics are pretty depressing regarding all the negative things that can happen.
Why be a statistic? In the Kingdom of God, everything is jacked up.
No, it doesn't mean we sail through on cloud nine. Padded cells are safe 'n' cozy, but there is more fun outside, even if there is more danger.
The thing is - the more direct our relationship with God is, the more we find every event is special. Nothing happens by chance. It's all tailormade. By him, for us.
Okay, some of it's bloomin' uncomfortable. We don't always understand what's going on, not for some time after. But it DOES compute. Always with the personal touch.
Oh, by the way - there's a punchline to the story. Another neighbour (not the chequebook one) got done over by the same folk who flogged our stuff.
He was fully insured. Current market values and all that. Expensive, he always said, but worth it. The only snag was - and is - that although he lost almost $4000-worth of gear, he's not going to get one cent from the insurance company.
Something in the fine print, his solicitor informs him.
"There is" (says the handbook) "one mediator between God and man: the man Christ Jesus."
For anyone who isn't too sure what 'mediator' means - it's a go-between; a middleman', the person negotiating between two people or groups.
Sure, we accept the theology. But even protestants are shaky on the practice.
"Let us pray; let us all pray," says the minister after the first hymn.
Then...he (or she, in this enlightened age) ...prays...on...our...behalf.
Whatever the reason, whatever the tradition, it just isn't on.
God isn't influenced by eloquence. So there's no need to use someone with 'ability'. But he is influenced (in a negative way) by people who unthinkingly use an assistant mediator.
He is a jealous God. He appointed Jesus for one reason only: NOBODY ELSE COULD DO THE JOB.
So every time we let someone else contact God on our behalf, we are using an assistant mediator - another medium - in a situation where God has said only his son is allowed to act.
Or - should we expect God to honour our traditions?
-------THE BEAUT ATTITUDES-------
1And seeing the possibilities, the President of the World Bank called the finance ministers of many countries unto him,
2 And he opened his portfolio and taught them, saying:
3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, methanol and LPG, for they must borrow to pay off OPEC.
4 Blessed are they that mourn, for the undertakers shall be richly comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek, for they shall accept Visa cards*.
6 Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after war - or during it, for that matter - for they shall be filled with Coca Cola, textured vegetable protein and patent baby foods.
7 Blessed are the merciful, for they shall not attempt to indict their governments which are, after all, only doing their duty.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for theirs is a whole new market for pornography.
9 Blessed are the PLO, for they shall be killing the people of God**.
10 Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for they shall make good political propaganda in their little boats and refugee camps.
11 Blessed are ye ministers of finance when the media shall revile you for your excessive borrowing from the IMF, Japan and West Germany for my sake.
12 Rejoice and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward in the New Year's Honours List***; for so persecuted they the profiteers which were before you.
* Greek: markopha beesti. ** Some authorities add "and we shall finance them". *** Alternatively "in numbered Swiss bank accounts".
This is the tale of Timothy Wett
Who tours the world in a jumbo jet,
And stops at places too many to mention
To be the heavy at the Penty Convention.
At every large meeting he's highly regarded
(He preaches from notes Billy Graham discarded)
And never admits that his audience dozed
"With ev'ry head bowed and ev'ry eye closed".
His eloquence charms, by his talent we're smitten
He teaches a chorus he claims to have written -
Which even although he gets half the words wrong,
Seems reminiscent of "Scripture in Song".
He teaches on tithing, while all round the edges
Ushers are poised to collect the faith pledges;
And after the meeting he sells (for a fee)
Cassettes of his kids singing slightly off-key.
He sits on the platform, enthroned with the sages
(His books have his photo on alternate pages)
And his bright crimson suit, tho' low in utility,
Won't stop him proclaiming his gift of humility.
He'll mail every fortnight a glossy prayer-letter
To all who will give him a dollar or better,
Listing miracles, healings and answers to prayer
That somehow are missing the evening you're there;
Together with details (a form you can fill)
On how to remember his work in your will...
He teaches on Daniel, expounds on each feast,
The Date of the Rapture, the name of the Beast.
Because we're approaching the Great Tribulation,
Love-gifts he banks in a 'small neutral nation'.
And when it's all over, he'll calmly relax -
A registered charity doesn't pay tax!
-------BEFORE THE FACT-------
In God's Law - see Exodus 21:28-30 - if a beast has a history of causing injury and then kills someone, both beast and owner shall die.
This is the Law of God. Perhaps it is also a simple picture of the Fall and Redemption.
Death and sin came through one man's disobedience. However, the human race is s continuing process. All Adam's descendants are affected.
These people have no choice in the matter - they are killed by the same beast that has a history of injury and has not been restrained. The owner is aware of this - and is therefore responsible.
In one sense this is just abstract. There is no extradition treaty with Heaven: God cannot be extradited and punished. But the moment God becomes man and sets foot on this planet - see Galatians 4:4-5 - he is born under the Law and becomes liable for the penalty demanded by the Law, namely death.
But in the Law are two provisions: punishment and restitution. Either the death of the owner or the payment of a ransom. In Christ, both are combined. God the owner dies; his life is not only given for us, but to us.
We have the life of Christ.
I crept into an ancient crypt
And found a musty manuscript
That somehow had been once mislaid
When the New Testament was made.
It answered every nagging doubt
On things the Bible had left out.
Authentic? Yes - it's plain to all:
The signature is clearly "Paul".
So through the old scroll I did seek
Translating from the koiné Greek
Each verse, each chapter, every thought
The erudite apostle taught.
I found a creed. To my relief
It states quite clearly each belief.
And, just to obviate a schism,
The manuscript defines "baptism".
Sin, we are told, is not a joke.
Don't dance, drink, gamble, swear or smoke.
But colour TV just might do -
As long as pastor has one, too.
He gives instruction to collect
Tithes, that church buildings will erect,
Frankly stating in his letter
"Our motto, folks - the Bigger, the Better!"
Paul floors the sceptics with his jibes
By saying who're the Ten Lost Tribes,
And pleases one church group at least
By giving the date when miracles ceased.
His letter sews it all up tight.
The churches will be organised right.
I look at the Bible and think "what went wrong
That these vital facts were left out for so long?"
Now available: Ten Commandments reproduced in long-lasting, indestructible plastic. (Our Commandments are unbreakable...) Now - with the timeless, meaningful wording updated to meet out 21st century needs. Thrill to the wonder of it all as you read:
THOU SHALT HAVE NO OTHER GODS BEFORE ME - except for our dear Prime Minister, the dollar and self.
THOU SHALT NOT MAKE ANY GRAVEN IMAGE - but Maori culture groups, Catholics and car dealers are automatically exempt.
THOU SHALT NOT TAKE THE NAME OF THE LORD THEY GOD IN VAIN - except when talking to friends, or in stress situations of mild surprise.
REMEMBER THE SABBATH...IN IT THOU SHALT DO NO WORK - rather, remember your denominations (on Sunday, not on the Sabbath) and work flat to the boards to keep their programmes going.
HONOUR THY FATHER AND MOTHER - (whoever they may be in this liberal age) irrelevant with state pensions for the wrinklies.
THOU SHALT NOT KILL - leastways, not until compulsory military service comes back. And of course abortion is legal now. Then there's euthanasia.
THOU SHALT NOT COMMIT ADULTERY - but it's okay to watch others at it if you've paid your TV licence.
THOU SHALT NOT STEAL - this excludes the rates and taxes people - they can always legalise everything they do, can't they?
THOU SHALT NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS - except in big business and politics; after all, character assassination is vital to progress.
THOU SHALT NOT COVET - but then, who needs to, with hire purchase, overdrafts and credit cards.
Now he was old. Life was no longer a delight; just to exist was a burden.
His independence and freedom had turned to imprisonment.
His vitality had slowed to a few ineffective gestures. And age wrote its signature of wrinkles over his skin. His nails grew long. A few strands of hair were plastered against his scalp.
It was loneliness, though he knew not its name, that ached at his heart as he huddled in that one room.
And the claustrophobic oppresssion of its walls confined him.
He had outlived his days; there was no more purpose in being.
Delight and joy ceased even to be a memory. Instead, there was pain. Pain that began but faintly at first, then inexorably increased, regular, rhythmic. Crowding in on him, squeezing and pummelling, always with that repeated insistence.
If he could have cried out, he would have called for death. But he could make no sound.
In a final agony, his time was fulfilled. As death, dread death, took its hold, he moved from tired sanity to frenzied nightmare. Heat and cold belaboured his limbs; shrill, piercing noise stabbed his ears; great shafts of light penetrated the lids of his tightly-closed eyes.
As if to seal his doom in callous judgement, a mighty blow smote his body. In a totality of misery, he lifted his voice and wept.
And a nurse whispered to his mother: "It's all over now; it's a boy. It's a boy_."
Funny things, parents.
Salt of the earth, of course. Hardworking. Not fully appreciated, either. Ask any parent. They'll tell you.
But, the funny thing about parents is the way they start off as trendy, with-it, cool newly-weds...
Then after a decade or two of telling young 'un he mustn't say bum...or pick his nose in front of visitors...or attach Cynthia to the electric fence...
They begin to believe their own propaganda. Parents start to think life revolves around being clean and tidy and polite. And when the youngsters fly the nest and go forth and multiply, the parents have this odd little tendency to stay in the same old groove. Being respectable. And safe.
Instead of looking round to see what crazy antics they can get up to. Enjoying each other's company. Which was the whole object of getting married in the first place, remember?
Two or three times a week, several bus loads of people go past our house. A couple of hours later - back they come.
No booze. No bawdy songs. They...sit there. Clean. Tidy. Always the same people.
Exclusive Brethren. Off to meetings.
It'd be easy to knock them. Sometimes they seem to ask for it. But I'm in one of my rare good moods. Not knocking, just kind of sorry for them. Living in that closed environment, a little walled world that manages, pretty much to reproduce itself and keep ticking over with only a minimal nod to the heathen outside.
I'm not knocking them, but what about us? Have we got our own closed-circuit world of concrete and TV and work and recreation. Do we go from one day to another at the precise speed dictated by the digital wonder on our wrist? Are we living at the level set by our pay cheque or Marac?
When did you last sit and talk to a fantail? Or choose - really choose what you would do next?
Somebody made all that bush and sky out there. I don't give a hoot what the scientists say. I know. And out there - well, perhaps he's still around. Pottering about. Making a few calculations on backs of old envelopes, planning changes, improvements.
And - just perhaps - it might be possible to get off that bus that takes us relentlessly on from today to tomorrow. To get out there.
To meet whoever made all that.
And say, "Sorry I'm a bit late."
We were done over by yet another religious organisation last week.
Knock, knock. Well-scrubbed couple with smiles and sales talk.
"Nice place you've got here. Aren't we all concerned about World Events? And the Moral Decline?"
Er, no, but...
"Did you know the Common Market was prophesied over two thousand years ago?"
Er, well, I...
"We'd like to invite you to a special series of meetings."
Er, um, ah...
You know - just sometimes I'd like to get a word in edgeways. I'm not all that bothered about the label on those blokes, either. For goodness' sake, we seem to cop the lot - from Stuffy Orthodox through Mildly Heretical and out to Wild 'n' Woolly Weirdo.
That's fair enough. But I'm bored to tears by the patter. The slick proof texts. The in-group thing.
Just once I'd like to get to know one of those door-bell ringers. Sit on the back verandah and swap yarns. Find out what makes 'em tick. Play Scrabble and see if they get ratty when I cheat.
What I want to see is how those folk function out in the wide and wicked world.
Where most of us have to live, after all.
Someone - Alfred Hitchcock, I believe - said, "life is just like a film, except there's no background music."
I think he made a boo-boo. There is background music.
Vibes. Hunches. Put your own label on it. That feeling you get about a situation. Or a person. No reasons, no logic, no helpful explanations you can argue against. Just a quiet tucked-away-somewhere ping that warns or encourages. Vibes Intuition. Where you know you can trust her or should buy that or mustn't go there.
Trouble with background music - civilisation is a bit noisy; makes us hard of hearing.
There's not much time to listen.
And the loudmouthed bit of our mind tries to drown out the music with a no-nonsense burst of reason.
Take time off to listen to the background music. Sometimes it can be the best part of the show.
And - maybe the Composer will put words to it.
"Somebody ought to do something about it."
"Weren't you watching the news? After the terrible fire in wherever-it-was and before the Lebanon bombing."
Can't say I remember.
"You must. That politician. The one who ran rings round Ian Fraser on Newsmakers."
Doesn't ring a bell.
"He'd got all the facts. Showed this graph. And said that by this time next year we'd be in for trouble. But with his big plan..."
Look, tell me later, eh.
"For heaven's sake! There's the country facing the worst crisis since the thirties and you don't want to know."
Not really. It's the young couple who moved into the old cottage a week ago. They're half-pie expecting me.
"That's typical. I'm trying to appeal to your social conscience and all you want is a gossip with some friends."
Hey, steady! This couple have got problems. Or didn't you know?
"Yes. Well, it's pretty obvious. He's on the dole and she's pregnant. Bloody shame, living off the state like that. If I went around there I'd soon tell them there's enough work to be had for anyone who'll use a bit of shoe leather looking for it."
That's the problem, actually. He's been offered a job, but their car's on the blink.
"Their car's on the blink, is it! That sort shouldn't have a car. My dad brought up six of us during the depression, and he never even had a pushbike."
It's not that simple. The job's about twenty kilometres away and no buses go near the place. I'm picking the car needs a valve grind.
"For nothing, I suppose. They'll expect it for nothing. All gimme, gimme, gimme, these days. If I had my way, I'd have a law passed..."
I'd better go. You wouldn't like to come and give a bit of a hand?
"You're joking! Folk should stand on their own two feet. Anyhow, that politician I was telling you about, he's on TV again tonight. Mustn't miss it. He's got this plan to cut back unemployment. I mean, it's high time somebody did something about it."
(A parable. 'If the Son shall make you free.')
The big man leaned heavily on the fence until the wires creaked in protest.
"You're doin' it all wrong. All wrong, d'you understand?"
His neighbour nodded, but made no reply.
"If you're goin' to keep chooks, you've got to get organised. Otherwise - forget it."
He waved a hand toward the long grey building set back a chain from the boundary. The drone of fans carried on the morning air.
"Battery birds. It's the only way to go with chooks. Three or four to a cage. Automatic feeding, water, lighting. The wife gets the eggs twice a day. I seldom go near the place. Except to chuck out the dead 'uns. Brainless things, the lot of them. But they're looked after well."
He broke into a paroxysm of coughing. A sudden change of wind brought with it the foul stench of ammonia from the heaped droppings in the building.
"Healthy, those birds. Balanced feed. Pellets chock full of antibiotics. And I've adjusted the lighting cycle to boost egg production. That'll get an extra ten per cent out of the flamers. Oh, it burns 'em up quick. They're finished after a year of laying at that pace. But what the hell. It's the figure at the bottom of the balance sheet that matters."
The big man looked despisingly across his neighbour's paddock.
"Free range is as good as chuckin' money down the drain. Look at you. Letting 'em go where they like, scratching about all over the place. You'll miss half the eggs, I'm telling you. How're you going to make a profit that way?"
The neighbour remained silent. Inwardly he smiled. He'd put up nesting boxes, but he knew the places in the long grass by the creek where two of his chooks emerged cackling proudly, every day. And under the shed, where his hand could only just reach.
"Look at 'em." The big man pointed scornfully. "Making dust baths everywhere. Wrecks the paddock that does. An' all the time, they're wasting energy. To say nothing of being out in the open where anything could get 'em. Hawks and that. Look - I couldn't hold myself responsible if my dog got over there. He'd massacre them."
His neighbour spoke for the first time. "He did. Last night. I tried to stop him - got a nasty bite on the heel for my pains. So I went and got my gun. Shot him through the head. He won't be troubling my hens again."
The big man glared at him and walked off with a muttered obscenity.
His neighbour smiled, shrugged and turned away. His eyes caught a flicker of movement where the bush ran down to the paddock.
It was Blackie. A bit of a pet with the children. The one who sometimes came indoors and made messes on the kitchen lino.
She'd been missing for a while. Clucky again. And now...
Through the grass, fussing and calling, she was bringing a cluster of ridiculously little yellow chicks. Proud as punch she was.
"C'mon, Blackie," he called softly. "Let's find your family something to eat."
For years, Sharon had lived with the problem. "Women's troubles" they called it. And although delicacy excluded the subject from polite conversation, inevitably in her small suburb there were few who didn't know.
Sharon had grown used to having a very limited social life. She had gone to every clinic and specialist, even toured the smooth-talking charlatans, quacks and humbugs - all of whom had used pills and scalpels to no avail. As her problem grew worse, her husband grew poorer.
She had turned to religion for help. Perhaps there might be a grain of truth in the wild rumours about strange happenings. She and her husband attended services regularly - hoping, waiting. But the whole thing had been so elusive.
After a while, Sharon plucked up the courage to have a frank talk with her minister. With some embarrassment she spoke of her problem and asked if God could do anything to help her.
The minister talked gently of patience and fortitude. Of beauty blossoming in the lives of those who suffered deeply. Of the love that God has for those with burdens to bear.
His finely-chosen words simply irritated Sharon. He would not give a positive 'no' to her question - but left her in no doubt that the age of miracles was past, and God now worked through physicians or not at all.
Sharon stormed from his study in a flood of tears, slamming the door behind her, out into the busy street...
...And found herself part of a crowd that swept her along in a noisy, carefree stream. They were following a young Nazarene radical who stirred up controversy everywhere by his words and by his actions.
It was then that a marvellous, crazy, beautiful, hare- brained idea came to her. Heedless of her social position, she elbowed and pushed her way through the mass of jostling bodies with a vigour she had long forgotten. And with a sudden lunge that drew a well-deserved curse from those whose toes she trampled on, she managed to touch for the merest fraction of a second the robe of the young Nazarene. Then the crowd surged on.
Sharon hoped that her action had passed unnoticed, but the Nazarene stopped and asked who had touched him. In that crowd! There were scornful looks from those around, but Sharon found herself looking into the, well - amused gaze of the strange young man.
"I touched you," she said quietly. And the Nazarene replied, "That, my daughter, is what faith is all about. Off you go; there's no problem any more."
The crowd swept on, and Sharon went home. For her, a new problem existed. How, oh, how could she tell her minister that she had been healed. And that she had stood in the presence of God.
Young Edward arrived late.
The rest of us were well into a game on Monopoly. Which basically meant that little Carol was banker - and winning handsomely; I was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy; Terry and Jo were a cosy little partnership with a stack of houses on Park Lane and Mayfair; and Big Jimmy was an untidy heap of money and title deeds that defied all attempts at organisation.
"Sorry, folks," Edward panted. "I've been painting the church."
He held up Dulux-bedaubed hands as evidence.
"There's a lot more to do, though. The church'll have to meet in the school hall until it's finished. I bet the church couldn't use school premises in countries like Russia."
A muffled growl came from Big Jimmy's corner.
"For goodness' sake, young Edward!" he expostulated.
Edward looked surprised.
"What did I say?" he asked.
"You used the word 'church'," grumbled Big Jimmy. "Three times. And each time with a totally different meaning."
"He should be a politician," murmured Carol.
"Oh, did I?" said Edward, politely. "I never meant to. In fact I've been studying the word 'church'. It comes from the Greek..."
"Never mind Greek for a moment," interrupted Big Jimmy. "You said you were painting the church - I had a vision of you brushing acrylic on neat rows of unprotesting Baptists. Was I right?"
"Of course not," Edward replied huffily. "I meant the old weatherboard building in the High Street."
"Then what's going into the school hall? You surely aren't shifting that ramshackle edifice into there, are you?"
Edward looked at the rest of us despairingly.
"No! The people who usually meet in the building I've been painting - they'll be meeting in the school hall."
"Ah!" Big Jimmy nodded slowly. And you don't think those people could go to Russia and use a school there?"
"Not those people! Just any Christians. Believers in general aren't free in Russia."
"Like Big Jimmy said," interjected Terry. "You used the word 'church' three t meanings. One: a building. Two: a small group who usually meet in that building. Three: all believers.
Edward looked puzzled.
"Does it matter?"
"Does it ever!" exclaimed Big Jimmy. "It can affect how you think, how you act, how you understand scripture. And especially how you sort out truth from tradition."
Terry cleared his throat.
"It's a funny business, the word 'church'," he began. "There never was any need for Bible translators to use it. They've put it in whenever they've come to the word 'ekklesia' in the Greek."
"I was going to say that," said Edward.
"But 'ekklesia' is a simple word that just means 'out- called'. Maybe too simple for the translators. They might have wanted to give an idea of buildings and organisations. After all, religion had grown into quite a big business. It would've been a shame to rock the boat or let people know they'd got the wrong end of the stick."
"You can't be serious," Edward said, surprised.
"I'm not joking," said Terry. "Translators are only human. Take the business of baptism. That's just an anglicised version of the Greek 'baptizo'. Well - baptizo means 'dip', 'immerse' or 'plunge'. It's an everyday word; nothing unusual at all. But when the translators came to it, they already had a tradition of sprinkling. So, rather than upset anybody by writing in 'immerse', they just wrote in the Greek word to keep things nice and meaningless. So people reading the word 'baptise' put on it whatever meaning their group teaches."
"Odd," said young Edward, "that even modern versions don't put things right. Tradition must be a powerful force."
"It is," agreed Big Jimmy. "Okay, young fellow, I poked fun at the way you gave 'church' all sorts of meanings. But it's hard to drop the word 'church' altogether and say - and think - 'outcalled'. We're basically lazy. All of us. So it's difficult for God to get through to us and say 'I never wanted you fellows to set up any organisations; I've already got one, and it works'."
"Don't mention 'Kingdom' to him," pleaded little Carol. "I want to get on with this game of Monopoly. I'm winning."
"That's just the point we've been making," I observed. "Vested interests again. Okay - whose go is it?"
FOOTNOTE FOR EGGHEADS...
'Smatter of fact, Big Jimmy and Terry didn't tell half the story. The smoke-screen surrounding 'ekklesia - the outcalled' began as soon as Christianity was forcibly centred in Rome. When the Bible was translated into Latin, the word 'ekklesia' didn't get translated. Although there was a perfectly good Latin word meaning 'to call out' - 'evocare', from which we get our 'evoke' - the naughty translators wrote 'ecclesia' in Roman letters, thus giving their readers something that had no native meaning for them.
Now, at the same time, the religious leaders were fond of the phrase 'kyriake doma' - 'the Lord's house' because it reinforced their emphasis on religious buildings. The phrase was usually shortened to 'kyriake', which became the German 'kirken', the Scots 'kirk' and the English 'church'.
So not only did the translators avoid translating a simple Greek word as 'outcalled', in modern times they have actually inserted a word (church) that means something totally different.
If you'd like to check this out, get hold of a good dictionary (Webster's Unabridged or one of the bigger Oxford editions - try the library) and look up the word 'church'. Then see a copy of the Vulgate (the Latin version of the Bible) to find that 'ekklesia' merely became 'ecclesia', never 'evocatus'.
Oh, one last thing. Translators try to justify using 'church' on the fearfully weak grounds that a few heathen writers once used 'ekklesia' when writing about citizens being 'called out' to perform some civic duty or other. That, however, is a total non sequitur (!) because the word 'ekklesia' does not describe the performance of the duty, but the fact that they were summoned.
"Lord - how come you haven't saved Ted yet?"
"There's been absolutely no change in him. And I was fasting for part of last week, too."
Fasting, was it? I wasn't sure if you were on a diet or a hunger strike. But that business of no change...
"Well, his attitude to church!"
Val, when I say church, I mean the people I've called out. But when you say it, you've got a funny mixed-up picture in your mind. People and meetings, buildings and denominations, customs and religious organisations.
"But you should hear what Ted says about the religious organisations. The language he uses!"
Perhaps you should read what I say about them, Val. My language gets a bit strong, too.
"And he always makes excuses when I try and get him along to ch... - to the meetings."
Ever wondered why, Val. You're selling him a whole package deal.
"But, Lord - I want him saved."
Your way or mine, Val?
You've planned it all, haven't you. The evening service, naturally. There's an appeal. Ted puts his hand up during the last hymn. Walks down to the front. And repeats the sinner's prayer after the pastor. Right?
"Well, why not, Lord?"
Val - if you're going to restrict me to your traditions, you might just fail to notice if I go and do something different.
"Then, how about I get the pastor to come and have a talk with Ted? He's been such a help to me - and I can't understand why Ted doesn't like him."
There's such a thing as jealousy, Val. That's something else Ted and I have in common. Try relying more on Ted or me when you've a problem. It'll do wonders for your relationship.
"With Ted, Lord?"
And me, Val.
"Anyway, if I'm not to drag Ted along to a meeting or ask the pastor to see him, how am I going to get him saved?"
Firstly, Val, 'getting him saved' is something I do, not you.
And if you want to help a little, try going out with him when he spends an evening with his friends.
"But, Lord! That's usually on a Sunday."
So? It doesn't matter; I'll be coming along too.
"And another thing: I hardly know them. Some of them work with Ted, so they'll just talk shop all the time. They're not even the sort I like."
I seem to remember Ted has a similar problem with your meeting, Val.
"And they drink! That's one thing I can't go along with."
Val, you're rather quick at judging others by the standards you set for yourself. Perhaps it's time I told you something about Ted.
The thing he fears most about being a Christian is having to live up to all the middle-class European standards of you and your group. You do take yourselves far too seriously, you know. And what if he decides to join that group that meet in the High Street?
"Those people, Lord? I'd never go along with that! A lot of what they teach is error. At least we study the Word and believe it all."
Study - it? Val, the Word is me. You've got the old, old problem with idolatry. That's what I tried to tell another religious group years ago: You search the scriptures which tell you about me - but you won't come to me to receive life.
"Oh. Sorry, Lord. But what I mean is - I've been a Christian now for several years, and Ted would have to realise that I know so much more than he does. It would take him quite a long time to catch up."
Val, it might be worth your knowing that quite a number of husbands daren't let on to their wives that I've struck up a relationship with them, for fear they'll be dragged off to meetings as a prize exhibit, and bossed unmercifully by their more-spiritual spouses. That's something Ted's scared of. In fact he's complained about it several times recently.
"Complained? Who to?"
"You, Lord! D'you mean he prays?"
When you say pray, Val, you think of waiting until Ted goes off to work, then kneeling by the bed with your eyes tight shut. When I say it, I mean any sort of talking to me: casual, informal, something muttered... or even thought.
I think he's got a lot to teach you. If you'll let him, that is...
(With a nod to Mark, 1 - 19)
There's just no excuse for it!
I don't care what anyone says. He's ruined our business, and nothing else matters.
Look - it was all on account of Simple Seth. The lad's been - funny as long as I can remember. Different folk give different reasons. You know how these country types go on.
Demons, they say. Evil spirits. Possessed, the poor fellow.
Ignorant, superstitious bunch. Mark my words, there's always an honest-to-goodness reason for anything. And that Seth was just plain out of his mind. Could've happened to anyone.
Mind you, it used to give me a creepy feeling. You know where he lived?
Down see him, sitting on one of those gravestones. Or skulking around those big family vaults.
If he saw you he'd start this interminable screaming. Horrible. Set your teeth on edge. Then he'd pick up a sharp piece of flint and start cutting himself, still screaming.
What? Stop him? Everybody's tried that, some time or another. Usually after Simple Seth's terrorized a funeral procession. Or shown an - ah - unhealthy interest in a recently filled-in grave. Know what I mean?
Then you'd get a bunch of the locals organising themselves to deal with him. Ropes. Chains, even, on more than one occasion.
But whatever was wrong with his brain seemed to give him unusual strength. He didn't give a cuss for the hemp or the iron tearing into his flesh. He'd just heave and wrench and scream - and burst those fetters into pieces.
And you should've seen him when there was a full moon. Berserk, he'd be. With a strange sort of glow - you know? - in his eyes that'd make your blood run cold. Not that the moon's got anything to do with it. There's probably some scientific reason for that sort of thing.
Anyway, I had to go near the graveyard a few days back. Looking for a sow that was due to farrow.
They do that. Get away from the rest of the herd, so's they won't be disturbed.
You see, we've got a contract to supply the barracks, and until now it's been a real money-spinner. Anyhow...
Just as I got to the graves, I saw a crowd getting out of a fishing boat that'd come across the lake. Most folk avoid the cemetery. But this bunch hadn't seemed to notice. Not that it was a funeral party, either. Anything but!
I recognised one of them. Seen him when I was in town. That new preacher. You know - Jesus the one who calls himself God's Son.
There'll be trouble, I said to myself. Our Simple Seth'll bust up the picnic good and proper.
And, sure enough, all of a sudden there he was. Standing on top of one of the tombs, naked as the day he was born, caked with blood and dirt, bit of chain and rope trailing from his wrists. Screaming, of course.
Everybody from the boat froze. Just like that. All except Jesus. He - he said something. Told him to get out, I think. Didn't make sense.
Well, he called out something like "I wasn't troubling you, was I? Then don't start tormenting me - Jesus. Son of God!"
Anyway, Jesus didn't seem surprised. Calm as you like he just asked him his name. And Seth yelled back about being an army or whatever. Probably he thought he'd got an army of demons in him, I reckon!
Then the two of them seemed to have a bit of a discussion. I had to creep closer to catch the drift. Jesus was saying something about "you'll all have to go", and Seth, in that weird voice of his was saying "no - not into the abyss; no, we don't want that, do we?"
I must've made a bit of a noise. Both of them looked round and spotted me. And spotted all those pigs of mine rooting round on the hillside behind.
Seth had got that glow in his eyes. "There," he screamed, "those'll do. They shouldn't be there, should they. Against the law of Moses, eh.
We'd like the pigs, wouldn't we? Let us go into the pigs. Go on, let us!"
And Jesus looked at that herd - my herd - gave a bit of a wry smiled and nodded.
Then everything happened at once. Seth fell from the top of the tombs. No, he didn't jump. More like - like a puppet when someone lets go the strings.
And behind me, I heard the pigs.
You know how they squeal when you're killing one of them? Imagine two or three hundred making that sort of row all at once. They'd gone crazy. Running round in circles. Biting at each other.
Then, suddenly, they were off. Charging hell-for-leather down the slope. One big stampeding dust-cloud. Straight for the cliff.
It wasn't long before it was all over. The water's deep there. They squealed and splashed for a bit, but pretty soon every last one of them was dead. Drowned.
And my lads who were supposed to be looking after them had taken to their heels and run back to the village.
Yes - you could say that. As if the devil was after them.
What happened to Seth, you ask? That's the funny part of it, really. He's - well, normal now. Had the bits of chain sawn off his wrists, got some clothes from somewhere, and gone back to his parents. Even taken a job, I've heard.
But what about me? That's what I want to know. It'll take years to build up another herd like that.
Of course I blame Jesus for it. I mean, I told you what Seth and he said, didn't I?
But I can scarcely go charging up to him and complain about him sending a load of demons into my pigs. It'd sound stupid.
After all, there must be some scientific reason for it all. There always is.
-HOW TO BE VERY, VERY SPIRITUAL-
Blokes make a fortune out of this. "How to Grin and Get Godly". "How I Defeated Temptation - and Frustration". "Humility and Me" (with fold-out poster of the author advising the Prime Minister at the Beehive.)
And the good advice that every flippin' youth rally dishes out. (Especially on 'how to overcome That Habit' - like we were a bunch of nuns, or something).
You know, I once took notes on all the essential steps to instant holiness that my friendly Church of the Whited Sepulchre was laying on me. Give more money - like ten per cent. Of your income before tax, you meanie. Fast - which means eating nothing, either before or after meals. Go to all the meetings.
Pray aloud at the prayer meeting (...thought we were only to do that in a closet of sump'n...). Have a Quiet Time before/instead of breakfast. And memorise pages and pages and blooming pages of scripture for when the Commies take over and confiscate all our Bibles.
I'll let you into a little secret. It Doesn't Work. Well, no, that's not fair. Because we'll be hard up and emaciated (see - I do know some big words), our time'll be chock full and we'll be wandering around in a little daze, muttering "Matthew one five and Salmon begat Booz of Rachab and Booz begat Obed of Ruth and Obed begat Jesse".
So we won't be able to handle any expensive or strenuous sins, beyond having a quiet perv at the organist's knees when we should've had our eyes shut, you naughty boy.
But basically It Doesn't Work.
So then comes the next ploy. Bible College, would you believe. Mustn't be too critical - they function real neat as marriage bureaux. (Who said "and keep the unemployed off the streets"? Shame on you, madam?)
Anyhow, Bible Colleges come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from the teensy-weensy fly-by-night version that some group dreams up as a sort of fund-raising midweek meeting, to the grand-iloquent Officially Recognised type that turns out fully orbed ministers, priests, reverends, pastors and what-have-you. (Indigestion?).
At first blush it seems good to spend a year or three studying the Bible. I mean, what harm can it do to know that the book of Uraliah comes between Jerimiah and Lamentation? But, to quote a well-known saying that I've just invented, any nit can be knowledgeable. Don't mean nothing.
Let's face it, it's not the way God works. He jacks up real-lofe situations to teach us something, and there's just no way that He's going to cooperate with a syllabus slam-bang full of hermaneutice, homiletics, eschatology, pastoral psychology and liturgical boomps-a-daisy. Anyway, you couldn't stand the pace it He did.
Also that intricate mass of bone and muscle between the ears, that I lovingly call my brain isn't what God aims for. Facts are pretty worthless and soon degenerate into technique. What I need in revelation - summat said direct to my spirit. Something I can know is truth, and not just our denomination's hard line.
And, to get back to the original business of how to be spiritual, sure there's a cosy lot of oomph generated when you're with a bunch of blokes and blokesses all around your own age. Like I said, the cupid thing is all systems go in Bible Colleges.
But it's one thing to be all bug-eyed and spooky with a crowd at devotions. It's another thing to relate the value of that (I suppose it has some value. Huh?) to everyday life once graduation day has come and gone. Sure, there's a seventy-five cent diploma in its eight-dollar frame. Signed by the principal, bless him. (You know, we really worshipped him! Well, you know what I mean. It was the way he made Zechariah live in those lessons. If only I could put it over like that to the jokers at work.)
But we can't. Because the jokers at work couldn't give a damn about our lecture notes on Zechariah. Funny, isn't it, but Jesus never got much into that sort of thing with the crowds. Knocked the religious thing a bit, told some pretty down-to-earth yarns, talked about His Father and the kingdom. But never got into proper Bible study. I wonder why?
Anyway, that leaves just one desperate ploy in the effort to be spiritual. The good old Full Time Service For The Lord. Oooh! I just got called to be a missionary.
The technique is the old deputation work, as it's known in the trade, where we troggle round as many chapels, churches, assemblies, prayer cells and what-alls as possible, explaining to them that we're going out in faith and are looking for prayer partners.
Translated into basic Enzed, it means we're not going out in faith and are looking for kind and simple souls to guarantee regular financial support. In return we will send them a monthly prayer letter explaining why we need more money.
It's when we get to "the field" (missionary jargon for whichever Wogland we wind up in) that we realise we're still way off getting spiritual. It's a bituva shok to arrive in our long-talked-about Heathen Country and discover we might as well of stayed home.
You see, barring unimportant differences (you don't drink the water/laugh at the prime minister/chat up the birds) everything is the same as back home. All the major denominations have been doing their thing for the last hundred years. And having stamped out such dastardly acts as toplessness and polygamy, the missionary thrust has become comfortably settled.
Unfortunately, the missionary business is the hardest thing to get out of. So we inexorably slip into the pattern of trotting home on furlough every three years to do the rounds of our prayer partners. Armed with duty-free slide projector we regale the faithful with exciting shors of our Landrover stuck in the mud, two of the local elders building our new house, and Rhamsett Ghunn, our first convert...
Perhaps (just perhaps, because it's an unforgiveable sin to knock the mishes) we sometimes get the wrong end of the what'sisname with this spiritual business.
I suspect that we've looked at some organisation to give us the opportunities for saving the great unwashed, and expected God to back us up as we proclaimed the eternal truth of Middle Class Victorian Ethics (Judeo-Christian flavoured.) Hoping at the same time that the exercise would do us good.
If being spiritual isn't discipline, emotion, intellect or organisation...
What on earth is it?
Surely it couldn't be relationship?
As the outline of a hospital bed faded away, Sidney appeared in the middle of a blue mosaic circle set in the floor of a large hall.
He carefully brushed his brown jacket, and straightened his tie, blinked, and looked around. Dying had been such an upsetting business. Ah, but when one has one's faith, what a comfort! He saw the angel and composed his features into an expression of suitable solemnity.
"I have arrived," he said with quiet dignity. "I am ready to meet the Lord."
The angel nodded and motioned to the doorway at the end of the hall. Sidney followed him, trying to walk with poise and yet not fall behind.
"This - this is the moment I've been waiting for. To see Him, face to face! As I have quoted so often in the worship services, 'when we shall see Him, we shall be like Him'. Oh, just to worship and sing praises, not for some brief hour, but for eternity!"
The angel stepped aside and allowed Sidney to precede him out of the hall. There was the faintest trace of a smile on the angel's face.
Outside, Sidney halted. The light was uncomfortably strong after the gloom of the hall. Then, as he shaded his eyes and peered, he made out a paddock in which a few dozen sheep were grazing. Beyond that, a creek. And beyond that, a hillside, largely in pasture, but with stands of native bush. It rose high above the plain on which the hall was built - but Sidney's eyes had begun to water in the glare and he turned back crossly into the doorway.
"There's nothing there," he informed the angel.
"Perhaps this will help explain things to you," said the angel. He gestured towards the blue mosaic circle in which Sidney had first appeared. Beside it were standing three more angels.
Briefly there appeared the faint outline of a very wrecked Cortina. Then it faded away, leaving its occupants sprawled grotesquely on the blue mosaic. Sidney stifled a gasp, realising that he was not looking at mangled flesh but at three people, presumably husband, wife and young daughter...
...Who suddenly became aware that they were alive. Chattering excitedly, they untangled themselves from each other and sat up. The daughter was the first to spot the three angels watching them. Her parents followed hard at her heels and for a few moments there was a delightful confusion of backslapping, hugs and handshakes. Almost as if they knew each other, thought Sidney disapprovingly.
Then - "Where is He?" demanded the husband. The angels smiled and pointed to the doorway.
"Right out there" said one.
The man grabbed his wife and daughter by the hand. "C'mon, fellows," he shouted. "This is it!"
Sidney could contain himself no longer. He stepped forward to block their path.
"Excuse me," he began. "I - ah - arrived a little earlier than you did. You seem to misunderstand where you are. Some - ah - reverence is called for."
He might as well have tried to stop a tidal wave.
"You reckon!" called the man over his shoulder as he pushed past the protesting Sidney.
In an instant they were through the doorway and into the brilliance. As the light swallowed them up, Sidney heard them call an excited "Hi!" to Someone outside. Then they could be heard all noisily talking at once, a wonderfully joyous conversation with a fourth Voice joining in. A Voice in which there was love. And laughter.
Sidney ran to the doorway. He started out, forcing his eyes to open against the painful glare. But there was only the paddock and the sheep. And the creek and the hillside beyond.
The angel gently took him by the arm.
"Let's sit over there in the shade," he suggested.
Sidney allowed himself to be led over to a bench by the wall. The brilliance still hurt his eyes.
"But they were so - uncouth," he murmured. "Yet they - they met Him."
The angel smiled.
"Perhaps," said the angel gently, "we should just sit here for a while. Until your eyes become accustomed to the Light. There's no hurry. None whatever. We have all the time there is."
---EPISTLE FROM THE GALATIANS---
"Hey, Paul - the mail's come!"
"Open it, there's a pal. I've got to get these tents finished. Anything good?"
"Usual junk mail. Circular advertising a Roman Orgy Night at the tavern in Straight Street. Readers' Digest are offering another of their condensed scrolls. Includes highlights from Homer's Odyssey, something by Socrates - who's he, I wonder? - and New Maths by Pythagoras. They'll send you a free pewter amulet if you reply before the Ides of March."
"Forget it, John-Mark. Is that all?"
"No, Paul. There's a scroll from - what's the postmark? - looks like Galatia. Know anyone there?"
"Do I ever. That'll be those Galatian believers. Marvellous bunch. Typical heathens to start with. But when I told 'em the good news - wow-ee! How're they doing?"
"Hang on - the sealing wax is tougher than the stuff we use. Here goes..."
Remember us? Your "Galatian guys"! Just putting pen to paper to say thanks for the mighty time we had with you, and to let you know how we are all going.
Fact is - we're getting on great, thanks to friends of yours who happened to be passing by a few weeks back.
Man, are those fellows mature! As soon as we told them that you'd been here preaching about Jesus, and the grace of God, and walking in the spirit - why, they cancelled all their plans and rounded us up for some systematic teaching.
Paul, how come you never got around to teaching us about the Law? Now, don't get me wrong! We're still thrilled that you told us about the Lord in the first place. But your friends have been showing us we were a bit childish, thinking from now on God would be directing us individually.
They've been on about all the commandments and rules, the feasts and ceremonies - the whole shooting-box. It'll make life so much easier, they reckon. Everyone'll be doing the same things - and we can throw the book at 'em if they don't.
We've started regular meetings, just like in the synagogues. And we ought to be a fair bit healthier, now we know what foods to avoid and what are okay.
Of course, we can't keep all the Law. We'll have to pick and choose to suit local conditions. But your friends have told us the closer we stick to it, the better God'll be pleased.
In fact, we're even into circumcision. Some of us objected at first. Well, no wonder, eh! Then your friends pointed out it was commanded by God - we had to do it to become members of his family. It's hard to believe God ever gave us his Spirit before we started getting a bit disciplined.
Just one thing's bothering a few of us, Paul. And we hope you won't go and take it too personally. It's your friends (well, they said they knew you, so we assumed they were on the level) and the problems they've got with the way you've been teaching.
They told us you went and gave yourself the title of "apostle", instead of waiting for those who'd actually ministered with the Lord to recognise your gifts.
Then there's the way you play down organisations and rules, and put the emphasis on "walking in the spirit". Look, it sounded real neat when you were here. Exciting, even. But now we've had a chance to think it through, it's a bit too vague. There's no safeguard - which is why we need something down-to-earth.
This is where we're a bit concerned. You see, your friends say a lot of your ideas are just a reaction. You know - to a few bad experiences you had back-along when you were in the religious system. And since then, you've gone off and done your own thing without a nod to anybody.
We've even heard a rather disturbing story about you having a run-in with Peter over the business of eating with Gentiles. Not that we usually listen to gossip. But we're rather inclined to believe this one, because we know you'd eat with anyone. Yet Peter would've been the one keeping the Law, wouldn't he? Perhaps you'd tell us your side of the story sometime.
You wouldn't credit the time your friends have spent teaching us! They use a neat illustration about becoming "sons of Abraham" and inheriting all his promises. And that's just got to be by keeping the Law, isn't it! I mean, how else can we be justified to God?
In face we're really believing God for even more miracles than the ones that happened when we first became Christians. That'll make all the hassle of remembering swags of rules and things worth while, now we can be sure God'll lsten to us. I think we'll make your friends feel proud.
Say, Paul - perhaps we just misunderstood the way you taught us. You didn't have long, did you, to go into all the dos and don'ts of being a believer. So probably it was a real answer to prayer, those jokers coming and teaching us.
Anyway, I've got this off my chest to give you a bit of a kick out of how we're growing up. We would love to have you to stay if you're ever this way again.
Hoping you're keeping a fair bit better than when you were here.
"Of all the stupid, idiotic, mis-begotten Gentile twits! They must be out of their tiny minds. They've gone more legalistic than the chief rabbi! That's the last thing we want to happen - an updated version of Judaism with some Christian trimmings. John Mark!"
"Grab a fresh parchment. Sharpen a quill and open a new bottle of cuttle-fish ink. I'll give 'em a reply that'll blister the hide off them."
"Okay. Ready when you are."
"Right. Usual opening - 'Paul, an apostle', etc., etc. You can fill that bit in later. Let's get right into the swing of it."
.....I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of God unto another gospel: which is not another; but there be some that trouble you and pervert the gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed...
"Got that? Reckon it's strong enough? Perhaps I should repeat it, just for emphasis."
.....As we said before, so say I now again, if any man preach any other gospel...
The word is being used more and more.
Pre-evangelism? What does it mean?
Essentially, it's a buzz-word to acknowledge something that's been going on quietly for a long, long time.
While the heavy metal brigade have been doing their dynamic, hard-sell evangelism in the glare of the TV spotlights with the well-rehearsed support of a hundred churches...
Ordinary believers in ordinary situations - say in the chaos of the mothers' roster at playcentre - have picked up a hint tossed into a conversation. Answered it casually. But adequately. Then let it germinate."Derek's scratchy again. No wonder though. Had another of his nightmares. Scared to sleep afterwards he is."
"Mm. Rotten things, aren't they. Carol was the same. We found a little prayer with her did the trick. At bedtime. Just simple words, nothing special".
"You reckon? Here - Leslie! Will you stop hitting Jo-An like that!"
No decision. No sinners' prayer. No commitment.
No high pressure. No hype. No technique.
Just a genuine need. And a genuine answer. Genuine material for the Holy Spirit to use.
Think about it for a minute. Okay, it's been fashionable for a long time to use highly stylised methods of evangelism similar to those used in selling insurance. But these ways have three disadvantages -
1. The decision-type evangelism works best in a large, highly-orchestrated meeting. That's not where most of real life takes place.
2. "Knock-knock-I'm-doing-a-survey", or the roller- coaster run from John-three-sixteen to Romans-ten-and-nine may sound convincing on the lips of some people. Maybe. Mostly it's embarrassing. Off-putting. The poor believer who makes a hash of it feels put down and spiritually substandard. The wicked sinner on the receiving end has had another negative experience to confuse him.
3. Let's face it. Decisions, sinners' prayers and commitments just aren't scriptural. They may be nice, there may be a place for them, you may have met the Lord because of them... But at rock bottom they are little more than a religious tradition - a fairly recent one. Let's amplify that.
Scripturally, all initiative is with God. God is the one who does things. Especially in salvation.
He seeks, chooses, calls out. We - respond.
It's just a little quirk of human nature that, after God has chased us, nudged us, given us sleepless nights, thrown a few disasters at us and finally pinned us to the mat in a hammerlock - then, in testimony meetings we piously proclaim "I decided for Christ".
(Bear that in mind as you consider two facts. First: some decisions don't "take". Second: some believers with a living relationship to their Lord have never, ever made a commitment or decision or whatever.)
Evangelism-as-a-technique is hopefully beginning to lose its glamour.
Instead, believers are starting to emphasise the need for pre-evangelism.
And not only on a small scale. Not only privately.
Look at Auckland's free glossy. Grapevine. Currently enjoying a larger readership than the long-established Listener, it soft-sells street Christianity.
Perhaps "soft-sells" isn't the best description. Recent articles have included being single and pregnant, homosexuality, alcoholism, abortion. All the biggies - and there's been no ambiguity about what's right and wrong there.
But the "letters" page often carries bleats from evangelicals who bewail the absence of the "straight, old-fashioned gospel" and the need for a formal commitment.
Yet the fact is that Grapevine (and its telephone counselling service) is busy meeting people where they are at. Where it matters.
Or take the Christian Broadcasting Association. Their award-winning series "Reflections" never pretended to be a soapbox for hot gospellers. But, again, it didn't stand off and condemn. It met people more than halfway. And got through to them.
That's pre-evangelism. It's effective.
And, what's more, any believer can do it. We don't have to memorise a sequence of out-of-context verses. Or carry a pocketful of peppy little tracts. It's enough to help someone who needs help.
And if the help involves a "spiritual" answer, give it. If it doesn't, don't. The good Samaritan provided Band-Aids, board and brekky. He didn't lecture the guy who was mugged on the superiority of worshipping "in this mountain" over that of the temple in Jerusalem.
Jesus told that story, remember.
In other words - do what the situation requires. Then let God do the follow-up. Don't get all neurotic about "what if the person died tonight? They'll go to a lost eternity if I don't preach the gospel to them."
That's based on a whole lot of condemnation and scare stories that never should have been unloaded on Christians. The fact is that God is alive and well, and can get through to us if he wants anything extra done.
For example, we know a kid who was clearly told by God to stay behind after school finished and have a serious talk to his primary teacher. As best he could, he explained how the Lord Jesus had saved him, and what it meant to love God. It was Friday. On the Monday he arrived at school to find that the teacher had died during the weekend.
God can prompt us. We don't have to sweat and strain.
Christians are often unaware of the embarrassment that outsiders feel when talking about God. Or Jesus. Or the cross. Or sins. And - let's face it - we believers haven't got a very good track record for tactfulness. "He wanted me to kneel down beside him in the canteen and repeat some sort of prayer", one man told us, horrified.
"I'm going to ask you to get up out of your seats and make your way to the front," thunders the evangelist.
Okay, if that's what God wants him to say. But for the average Christian in the average everyday situation there's no call to demand some form of exhibitionistic behaviour from someone you've gotten into conversation with.
After all - it doesn't totally depend on you. Maybe God is going to use a number of people to help that person.
Also - God does get through. He'll take a word here, an action there, and remind the person of it sometime. And they'll know it's God talking.
Look: we live on the edge of a state highway. The middle of nowhere, up a long hill. In three-and-a-bit years over a hundred cars have broken down at our gate. It's a bit of a joke with the neighbours.
And most times as we've been lending our hydraulic jack or doing makeshift repairs with a length of number eight, the unfortunate drivers have mentioned some other problem.If it's been appropriate, we've told them what God's done for us.
If not, not.
Then they've gone off. And mostly that's the last we've seen of them.
But now and then, God's let us meet up with them again. And we've found that something we'd done, something we'd said, had stuck. God had used it as a building block.
And those people had begun to experience a direct, working relationship with their Father.
I tell you - I'm worried.
Not that I'm usually that way. I'm used to dealing out worries, not receiving 'em.
But this last time... We'd got a whacking great stack of signed arrest warrants. And me and the boys were looking forward to a bit of action.
The job involved pulling in "The Believers" - folk who'd gotten into that new religion.
By rights the whole thing should've been simple. The leader - he was Jesus, from Nazareth - had been killed a while back. But rumours were doing the rounds that he'd come back to life. So, to be on the safe side, we were using a bit of muscle to get the whole thing closed down. Quick.
What? Did I believe Jesus had come back to life? Funny you should ask that.
Look - the boys and me were being organised by one of the intellectuals from the university. Deceptive sort of a bloke, our boss. Always got his nose in a book - but when it came to a bit of a third degree on a prisoner, he'd be right in there. Blinking slowly, like an owl - and suggesting new ways of making the guy talk.
Anyhow, our boss and the rest of us were just getting near where these folk hang out, when, all a once, there was this light. No! Not the sun. A light. And even the reflection of it off the road just about sizzled your eyelids. It was weird.
We were scared. We dropped to the ground, real fast. I mean - you can't fight that, can you!
And then - our boss...started talking. Not to us! To whatever or whoever was in that light. Quite a conversation, in fact. And...
Well, afterwards, we found the boss'd gone blind. Stone blind. But...that wasn't all. He'd taken all those arrest warrants and torn 'em up. Every last one. Said we weren't taking any prisoners. Said Jesus wasn't dead. Not any more. And said he was - going to become a believer.
Like I told you - I'm worried. Because, if this business is for real, how on earth can we stamp it out?
-------IT PAYS TO ADVERTISE-------
Antioch Advertising Agency. Good morning!
Tom, old fellow, I was just going to call you. Yes, great. Terrific. No, I like it, I really do.
Sure, we'll be glad to promote this new religion of yours. Yes, I know you've been having doubts about it, but three years isn't a bad track record for him, is it!
I've had the art boys dream up a logo for you. You'll never guess. No... A fish! Why? Well, Tom, d'you speak Greek? Pity. Actually it's based on what we in the trade call an acronym. We take the initial letters of one of your slogans and...
Tom, it's essential that we inject a bit of sophistication into this religion of yours!
And while I think of it, our copy-writers are kicking around a few ideas for a new name for your people. Sorry, Tom, "Followers of the Way" just isn't punchy enough. And frankly it comes over as a bit - well - exclusive. I'm putting my money on "Christians". What? Yes, that's Greek as well.
Great. Terrific. You're catching on fast!
Your leader's got the right image. Anti-establishment, sleeping rough, sense of humour. Talks as if he believes what he's saying. That's good, Tom. Really good.
But he's just a wee bit off-beam on the money question. "Give to the poor", he keeps on saying. I know - I've studied the transcripts. Tom: we operate on a percentage. You've got to get the old cash-flow going through your group's fingers. Tell people - oh, tell 'em you just want to administer it. Then you'll have a steady income, we'll get our cut, and anything that's over can be banked in case someone has a genuine need.
You think your treasurer'll go along with that...? Great. Terrific. He sounds a bloke after my own heart.
Hey, Tom - about the way your leader knocks the religious folk. Don't start taking that too seriously, will you? Stay objective like I do. Because I've got plans for setting up halls in every town and village. Rent 'em, buy 'em, even get some rich old codgers to build them - we'll push the tax angle with that one. They can be a centre for your religion. Hold lectures every week. Organise group sessions. People need a focal point, otherwise interest drops off. Being spiritual isn't sufficient in this game, Tom.
Another thing - if we're going to do a decent P.R. job for a new religion, we'll have to jack up a whole set of ceremonies. We'll need rituals, festivals. They always go down well with the media and the tourist promotion people.
My plan is to take some of the pagan festivals, add a bit of symbolism from your leader's teaching, and bingo! Instant acceptance by Greeks, Romans, the lot. I'm working with something based on Ishtar, the fertility goddess. Spring, new life and all that. I'll have to tone down the cruder aspects, but I'm betting it's a winner, Tom.
Anyway, go and have a think about all this. We'll be closing until after the Passover, so it's not worth getting into gear yet. But I'll get your leader to come in and discuss technique in a couple of weeks' time.
Okay? Great. Terrific. Just a couple of points, Tom. Tell him to get on the right side of Pilate. That guy's got pull in high places. And if your religion could get the green light from Rome, the world could be your oyster.
The other point? Well, look, between ourselves - get him to soft-pedal all that miracle business. Tom, old fellow, that sort of gimmick just isn't our style at all. I'm working on a dignified image. You know? The kind we could teach people to project in a management seminar. But if he goes on about angels and devils and healings and suchlike, well! It'll only bring in the fringe element. Give your religion a bad name.
No. Tom. I wasn't saying whether his miracles are genuine or not. I never enquire into a customer's methods. But I do know how to inject a measure of respectability into salesmanship.
Little wonder you've been having a few doubts, eh, Tom? Things have been a bit too informal and happy-go-lucky. Nothing organised. Nothing cut and dried. Nothing you could really get to grips with.
But not any more, I reckon! You're going to be glad you brought us in. Remember, you can really have faith in the Antioch Advertising Agency.
Ring us again in a fortnight. Okay, Tom? Great. Terrific.
(See Genesis 19)
Yes, we've lived here quite a few years now.
Not that we aren't country bumpkins at heart, you know.
But for the sake of the children's education we moved into town. And I must say it has paid off handsomely.
How? I'm surprised you ask! Both girls finished their schooling with as many qualifications as their friends. And now they have both married into very good families - something that the polish of city life has helped them achieve, I'm sure.
Then, look at my wife. If ever anyone has found their niche, she has. On every committee, and forever organising the local ladies in something cultural. A regular pillar of the community, if you ask me.
I've even settled down to a desk job. Although I've found the men I work with, well, frankly - effeminate after the down-to-earth types we had on the farm.
Trouble was, perhaps they were too down-to-earth. I used to have nothing but trouble with my workers when my Uncle and I were in partnership. His fellows and mine often went ape at each other. And that's just not on when you're farming.
Oh, so you saw Uncle this morning! I suppose he told you in confidence about his special revelation from God. Tells everyone, he does. "One day, a son", he quavers. But it's all so silly, seeing his wife went through the change years ago.
You didn't encourage him, did you? Next year, you told him! For heavens' sake! I just don't understand some people. I believe in God the same as Uncle does. But there are limits. It's all a matter of how you live, not some mystic business of direct communications from space and all that.
That's why I put my name forward for the city council elections. The wife and I didn't agree with the more liberal attitude of some people. So I felt that my presence on the council would help to moderate things a little. But perhaps you don't know what goes on around here?
So you've heard! Well, maybe news does travel. But we mustn't be too quick to judge, must we? After all, life is more, shall we say, sophisticated in the metropolis. And you two gentlemen can hardly be expected to appreciate the freedom that we enjoy here. Time and understanding, I always say. Time...
You've just got to be joking! Leave here? Really, that would be impossible. We've only recently got the house comfortable. And the wife would never hear of it. Not with all her community work. A pilllar, I said.
Well, I suppose the girls might leave. Anything for a bit of fun seems to be their philosophy. And we're very close as a family. But there'd be no shifting their husbands. Born here, they were, and likely as not they'll die here.
Oh, excuse me a moment. There's a knock at the door.
Yes? Well, that's right, we have got a couple of visitors. No, not local people. Come to think of it, I'm not sure where they're from.
You want to see them. D'you mind if I ask why?
You - what?
There was this story. A bit odd, maybe.
There was an old boy. Comfortably off, he was. Really comfortable.
And he employed an estate manager to handle all his paperwork.
You know the sort of thing. "Don't trouble me with the details. Show me where to sign the damn thing. That's what I pay you for."
And the old boy'd go off and leave the manager to it.
Great. For quite a few years.
Then, oh - just a few things didn't quite compute. Deals that sagged and died. Investments that stopped glittering as soon as the ink was dry. Opportunities missed and plans shelved.
And although the old boy was still fairly comfortably off, you wouldn't exactly say he was really comfortable.
So, after a fair bit of thought, he called in the manager and had it out with him.
Nothing dramatic. Usual notice and all that. Meanwhile. "Get everything straight, will you, so you can hand over to the next bloke."
But when the old boy had gone, the manager had sat and thought. And sat and thought.
He wasn't getting any younger. Manual work wasn't up his street. The dole wouldn't go far - he'd been used to a decent salary for more years than he cared to calculate.
Then he remembered the magical phrase.
"It's not what you know..."
And pretty soon he had a little procession coming to his office. Mainly those who'd been owing the old boy for three months or more.
And a few dates were changed. A few amounts reduced.
And there were handshakes and smiles. Nods and winks.
The old boy, of course, had a shrewd idea of what was going on. Surprisingly, he didn't get upset by what the manager was up to.
In fact, he commended him for his prudence. For finally making the best of a bad job.
All of which may not sound a very moral sort of story. Not the type you tell the kiddies over a cup of Milo at bedtime.
But Jesus - who told the story in the first place - was never unduly concerned about sounding respectable.
He wanted to put across a point. Being consistent.
One way or the other.
Because it pays off. Because then you know which side you're on.
And so does everyone else.
(With acknowledgements to Galatians 4: 1 - 9)
Prince Cedric leaped out of bed, snatched up his little flag and waved it.
Then he rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, stood on tip-toe to see himself in the mirror and tried again.
Which looked better? To hold the flag high in the air and flourish it vigorously - or perhaps at shoulder height, with more dignity?
Cedric paused as a snore jarred his ears.
Across the room, Prince Eustace was still asleep. Cedric walked over and prodded him sharply.
"Hey. Wake up, will you. I've been practising my flag- waving for simply ages. You'll never be good at it if you lie there all day.
Prince Eustace heaved himself up on one elbow.
"What? Oh - gosh, Cedric. It wasn't a dream, then?"
"You mean that business yesterday? 'Course not. But hurry up."
Eustace dangled his legs over the edge of the bed and swung them, lost in thought, reliving the events of the previous day.
"I was just sitting there," he mused out loud. "At my desk in school. Like I always do. I'd had another growling from crabby old Mr. Torah the teacher. Then, suddenly the door opened and the whole class went quiet. It was the Crown Prince. I mean, you read about these royal walkabouts, but... Old Mr. Torah didn't say anything. Just pretended to be marking a pile of exercise books. And then the Crown Prince made straight for me. He stood at my desk for a moment, then smiled. 'Aren't you going to say hello to your big brother? he asked. 'I came here to tell you that Dad has adopted you. So - welcome to the family.' Then he squeezed my shoulder and walked out."
Prince Cedric shrugged. "It was the same for me. But that was ages ago. Hurry up and get dressed. There's a lot to do before school starts. Flag waving practice. I want to try out a song I've written - 'I can remember, I can remember, the day I was adopted'. Then down to the High Street in case the King and the Crown Prince make an appearance. But we mustn't be late for school."
Prince Eustace paused in the process of pulling on his socks.
"School? I was thinking of giving it a miss, now. Perhaps I'll go and explore the palace. Meet my new Dad. And my brother."
"Explore the palace?" Cedric's laugh had an edge to it. "Don't start getting all high and mighty because of what happened yesterday. Be thankful that we're allowed to live rent free in this cottage. And when we die, we've got the right to be buried in the palace cemetery!"
Eustace wrinkled his nose.
"What's so good about that? This cottage doesn't get much sun. And it's small and dusty."
"Ah, but I've heard that there could be a royal garden party at the palace one day. We're bound to be invited. That'd be fun. Anyway, come on."
Cedric grabbed the reluctant Eustace by the hand, scooped up a couple of flags and trotted out into the street. Ahead could be heard the noise of a large crowd.
The murmur of voices changed. The royal coach was coming. Cedric flourished his flag and cleared his throat.
"I can remember, I can remember, the - " he carolled lustily.
There was the Crown Prince, looking their way. His eyes rested for a moment on Cedric with - but Eustace rejected the impression - embarrassment. Then he caught Eustace's eager stare and, without turning his head away, leaned slightly to say something to the King.
His brother and his Dad, now.
And in an instant the coach took them out of sight.
Cedric's fingers closed on his arm.
"You weren't waving," he said reprovingly. "I was! And singing. This evening I'll be writing a big petition. There's a list of new laws I'd like the King to pass. If I could throw it into the coach he might read it. But - hey, look at the time! We'll be late for school.
The two little princes ran back down the street. Cedric stopped at the cottage to put away the flags and Eustace grimaced at its shabby construction and the way it stood in the gloomy shadow of taller buildings.
Their way to school took them past the palace. Only a few tourists stood at a respectful distance from the gates where tall sentries in magnificient uniforms kept constant guard. The sun blazed on the white marble of the courtyard beyond, making it hard to see the palace building and those who lived there.
"There'll be no more royal processions today," muttered Cedric. "Quick. Old Mr. Torah'll expect you to be a model pupil, now you've been adopted."
Eustace might not have heard him. He walked past the tourists and - slowly - up to the palace gates. His heart was thumping rapidly, noisily. The sentries towered at their posts, aloof and impersonal.
"Don't be stupid. Come back", whispered Cedric urgently. He waited crossly for a moment among the tourists. But the school bell was ringing and dawdling with Eustace had already made him late. Cedric had no intention of getting into old Mr. Torah's bad books. Why, next term he might be made a class monitor if he behaved himself.
That would be really something, thought Prince Cedric. Imagine what it would be like to be a monitor and wear a badge.
Meanwhile, Prince Eustace had taken another step forward. The eyes of the sentries flickered briefly toward him. There was a low word of command, an effortless, powerful movement of uniformed muscle and polished weaponry, the ringing clash of steelshod boots on stone.
The guards had presented arms.
Eustace walked the vast length of the courtyard and climbed the high steps of the palace. The great doors were open and he found himself standing in the quiet coolness of a pillared hall.
Ahead stretched the banqueting chamber and, beyond, through towering archways, the throne room. Both were empty and silent, awaiting the next state ceremony.
Then, to one side, a door opened. Eustace glimpsed rich furnishings, heard the sound of voices. There was laughter and music from the royal apartments.
A footman came towards him. And bowed.
"Welcome home, sir," he said. "Please come this way. The King has been expecting you."
Suffering's an odd business.
It's too easy to be all noble and heroic about it. In the abstract.
Or make others feel guilty if their life is too tranquil.
But five minutes-worth of toothache quickly puts the whole matter in perspective. No-one likes suffering.
There's no reason why they should.
And, let's face it, if Jesus was punished for our sins, then we must be very careful about accepting anything nasty without checking out who sent it. Oftener than not, it's Ole Red-eyes, putting on his sincere, religious voice. Telling us it's because of sin in our life, because we need refining, or it's a fine Christian example.
Sure, I know about chastisement. "Every father..." But check it out. and meanwhile, there's a simple little way of keeping even the genuine variety down to a minimum.
Get right close up to Dad. Not in any velvet-suited Little Lord Fauntleroy fashion. But as some grubby-faced perisher that exasperates its long-suffering parent - and is Dad's favourite all down the line.
Despite what all the books say - God does have favourites. They're rough diamonds, the bunch of 'em. And they get away with an awful lot. If names like Gladys Aylward, Sturrett of the Sudan and Billy Bray ring bells, you'll know what I mean.
But that's by the way. Here are a couple of thoughts on suffering.
Thought number one: a heck of a lot is self-induced.
We ask for it. We don't bother to move when we see the steamroller coming.
Look - I am unashamedly pro-Jewish. Pro-Israeli. God chose 'em: God chose their land. But...
The reason millions of them were killed by Hitler and Co. was simply that they were comfortable in Germany and wouldn't move. They had their warnings - I've seen copies of the Jerusalem Post going back to 1935 and the writing was on the wall even then - but they stayed put. Even though, at first, they could go with all their goodies. Later, only with what they stood up in.
Later still, it was too late.
Or try Russia. The persecution of believers. Sure, I believe in freedom of religion. But the Communist regime has been established for quite a few years, and doesn't look as if it's in a hurry to go away. So isn't it time we applauded the believers behind the Iron Curtain who have got their faith down to essentials? And say to those who insist on their ikons and elaborate edifices and fancy dress parades "Look, it's lovely and meaningful and all that, but you are rather asking for trouble".
Perhaps I'm due for a smack on the wrist.
Trouble is, I'm tired of bandaging self-inflicted injuries. The good, steady husband who works all the hours there are; on every church committee; at every service. Then cries on my shoulder that his wife's run off with the septic tank emptier. Okay, she shouldn't have. But no, it wasn't the devil. It was dear, reliable old hubby over the years, being dull, predictable and absent as soon as the honeymoon was history. Ponder it sometime.
Enough of that. Let's move on.
Thought number two: genuine suffering or sacrifice that comes from God always finishes up with an equally genuine bonus that more than makes up for any earlier loss.
God - so the Handbook says - is no man's debtor. Which, being interpreted means He only thumps us on the back to stop us choking. Or only drags us away from playing mud pies to take us to the Winter Show.
Here's a small example. No great degree of self-denial by most folk's standards, but it'll give the general idea.
God told Eileen and me to go and live on a Maori settlement. Us and our four brats. Up till then we'd only ever lived in the country. It was a shock and a sacrifice to find ourselves with wall-to-wall people, co and trannies, tellies and stereos going rock around the clock. For five years.
Now, out of that time there came quite a number of not-so- fringe benefits. But the biggy was to be plunged into a confrontation with high-quality, well-established, broad- daylight demonic activity. Poltergeists, death-lights, hauntings, murdering spirits, kickbacks from broken tapus.
To name but a few.
Sure, we knew about exorcism. Mainly in prayer-line situations. Not in the adrenalin-pumping chaos where a young bloke has been taken over by Taniwha. After frenzidly trying to kill his parents, he seizes a carving knife to commit suicide. Neither reason nor brute strength can help him. Only the authority of the Name of Jesus.
We command, and watch the thing leave, and the young fellow's sanity returns.
But that wasn't all. And that wasn't enough. Exorcism is all very well - but what about the next day? and the next demon?
We had to learn - and we had to teach - how to live in the position where evil spirits had no effect. No rights. No footholds.
In other words, our neighbours wouldn't have to rely on constant regular exorcisms. Nor regard us as their resident gurus. Instead, they had to live in the revelation that they were seated in Christ, above any power or spirit or whatever. And were therefore untouchable, regardless of how "good" or "bad" they might be.
So... Suffering and self-sacrifice? Perhaps they are emotive words. And perhaps the only way to see them in their correct perspective is from God'd viewpoint.
It's - it's much more comfortable, standing up close to Dad.
-------HE WENT THATTAWAY-------
Let me ask you a question.
What is the next move of God? And in what direction?
Simple, eh. Or maybe not so simple. Because there are a couple of standard wrong answers that have been popular in church circles over the past two thousand years.
Wrong answer number one: there isn't a next move of God.
In other words - we've arrived. We have all the revelation that we're due for, and we're living in it.
Nice. Smug, though. And catastrophically wrong.
Just a few minutes curled up with your favourite book of church history'll show that God has been moving His people on at irregular intervals. Very much to their surprise. And critized by the inevitable bunch who refuse to believe it when it happens.
Think of the move into the concept of the priesthood of all believers. Or personal salvation. And the ministry and gifts of the Holy Spirit.
After you separate these revelations from the inevitable power struggles and organisational manoeuverings, there still remains an udeniable sense that God has been shifting His people from A to B, and re-structuring their thinking in the process.
In fact, many of the things we take for spiritual-granted were once regarded as utter heresy and were first introduced by fringe groups, wrong-side-of-the-tracks groups, over- enthusiastic and rather uneducated groups. The respectability and theology evolved later. Much later. There's food for thought.
And once any segment of believers had grasped the idea that they were being shifted on and had actually made the move - that was it! They had arrived. There was nowhere further up ahead.
Woe betide the bug-eyed mystic who dared to suggest the tracks continued over the next hill.
Bring on the faggots and the stake. Let's have an old- fashioned barbecue. if we find we've made a mistake, we can always make the bloke a saint.
After he's safely grilled medium-rare.
Try wrong answer number two. It's a more subtle one. Like: God is going to move us into a more intense, refined version of what we're at already.
If church unity grabs us - we'll see the next move as bigger and better amalgamation.
If personal holiness...or praise...or community...or service to others...or whatever is our thing - then we'll stoutly maintain that there's the direction God's going to take everybody.
No. Not really.
Sure, He's still chivvying His chosen stragglers into discovering any number of truths that have become happily hackneyed for thousands of the advance guard.
And wherever we're at just now, it's obvious that we could improve on our understanding, or our effectiveness of the position.
But that's not a move of God.
More just a putting down of roots. Getting settled.
After all - take a look at your kids. Teach 'em to talk. And walk. Try, try, try again to get somewhere with pot- training. Reading. Riding a bike. Etcetera. None of it is achieved terribly well. Especially the pot-training. But the doting parent presses on regardless. All the time introducing new things to be learned. New skills.
The refining takes place as a mere incidental. It doesn't substitute for progress.
Like it or not - we're overdue for a move. Must be, eh? If only because of the number of people saying "we've arrived; there's nothing up front except the Rapture" or "God's going to intensify the Baptism of the Soirit".
But - where are we going?
It's just a suggestion... Like - what if...
What if entering the Promised Land is intended to symbolise a literal moving into a new world: the realm we currently call "the supernatural"?
Think about it before you throw up your hands in horror.
Remember two things. No, three.
One - there were giants in the Promised Land. Walled cities. Chariots of iron. Nasty inhabitants who had to be utterly destroyed. All good reasons for not entering; all with parallels to be found in "the supernatural".
Two: Christianity, in its present form, is ambiguous in its appearance. Read the Bible, listen to sermons - there is a continual flow of paranormal phraseology. But in practice, the good works, ethics, studies, praise, prayers, songs are typical (apart from their theological slant!) of all religions, and are not a manifestation of much more than human ability. And outside the four walls of our church buildings, away from conversions, baptism in the Spirit, there is little supernaturalism in the everyday life of the believer.
Three: the atonement is absolutely central. Not as some solemn event to be remembered in hushed tones, but as a decisive battle-strategy that completely and effectively dealt with Satan. Legally and literally. It is a fact that we are seated in Christ in heavenly places, far above all rule and authority... In other words, we should regard our relationship to God - our sonship - as permanently established by the death and resurrection of Jesus, and unaffected by anything we do, whether good or bad. Then in any supernatural situation we cannot come to harm.
The trouble is that the Age of Reason has infected everyone with a materialistic non-supernatural outlook on life. And a by-product of this attitude is that believers have tended to hand the entire area of the paranormal over to Satan, and run away as fast as their little legs will carry them.
UFOs? Demonic! Firewalking? Evil! Levitation? Satanic! Out-of-body travel? Devilish! Teleportation? Fiendish!
Funny, that. Oh, I'm not saying it isn't sometimes true. But in the Bible, all these whacky areas are essentially of God. Perhaps our conditioning makes it hard to believe. Don't take my word for it - check it out; you'll be amazed how often these odd happenings occur in both Old and New Testaments.
Almost as if it was - normal.
Perhaps it was. Once.
Just perhaps the continual reference to angels was intended to suggest that they ought to be an intrinsic, matter-of-fact part of our lives. Just perhaps the place (or places) that Enoch, Elijah, Paul and John visited is part of our heritage. Now - not after we die.
If so...what went wrong? Why does all this sound so weird?
Again the answer is materialism. The Age of Reason.
You see, unbelief generates a psychic static that effectively blots out the spirit realm. (I'm making a careful distinction between soul - the "psychic" part - and spirit). The classic example was the failure of Jesus to do more than just a few healings in his home town of Nazareth. "He could do no mighty works there because of their unbelief".
Think about it - the power of the only-begotten Son of God neutralised because of the attitude of some of God's people.
And, at the same time, remember why God's people couldn't enter the Promised Land. Reason? Because of unbelief.
The time is ripe for the next move of God. Unfortunately, age is a barrier. Only two oldies entered the Promised Land. The rest were youngsters.
Only Joshua, who symbolises Jesus ( - their names are the same, only one is Hebrew, the other is Greek) can lead God's people in. Moses who symbolises law, has to die and be buried where nobody can ever find him.
Frankly, we prefer rules and regulations - the safety of legalism - to the direct, personal leadership of Jesus.
And our fear of giants outweighs our fondness for grapes.
Pity, really. The Promised Land seems so close.
-------OFF THE STREET-------
She came back to the house alone.
Indoors, another girl moved away from the window as she let herself in.
"Didn't he fancy you then, May?"
"It wasn't quite like that, Betty. He said I was called the same as his mum."
"They all say that. Was he gay, then?"
May shook her head emphatically. Opening a cupboard, she took out her everyday clothes, and with a few deft movements, began to change into them. Betty stared at her.
"What d'you think you're at? It's only nine."
"I'm...I'm going home. It was something the fellow said."
"You were talking with him for long enough. I thought he was getting you to go to his place. Cuppa?"
"Thanks." May took the steaming mug and sipped the drink carefully. "I'd gone up to him with the usual remark and he'd just shaken his head and walked on. Then he stopped, hesitated for a moment, turned and asked me my name."
Betty shrugged. "Max'll half kill you if you go off like this. He always thinks we cheat him out of his fair share as it is."
"Max can go to hell," said May flatly. Anyway, we do cheat him, for all that it damn well matters... I should be able to hitch a lift - the main road'll still be busy." She paused, lost in her own thoughts.
"But what did he say? The bloke you were with," prompted Betty.
"He went on about love," May replied, "and I thought it was only a line. I couldn't understand why he just stood there. Then he broke off in the mdddle of a sentence and looked into my eyes. Nothing scarey, mind. He wasn't like Max."
She took another sip from her mug and continued quietly.
"He said 'you can't really hear me, can you? It's okay, it's only a spirit'. And then, in a sort of different voice, not loud - just firm - he said 'you've been making trouble for long enough. Now go away, and never come back!"
"He said that to you? I'd have slapped his face." Betty's eyes flashed indignantly. May smiled.
"I just about threw up! But he wasn't talking to me, not then, anyway. Perhaps he thought something had been influencing me. Anyway, he spoke as if it could hear him. And whatever it was - it went."
Betty was looking at her through narrowed eyes.
"What are you planning to do?"
"Now? Go home, like I told you. He said I should - and I really want to. You know, Timmy's getting on for three, now. He must be a handful for Mum and Dad. It'd... It'd be rather - nice to look after him. I'm just glad that I never..."
Her voice trailed off into silence. Betty glared at her with mounting anger.
"So! A few minutes with a fellow, talking in the street, and you pack in the best job you ever had. Just because he went on about how bad you are."
"But that's just what he didn't do. He said I was now free to go and enjoy myself. And that I didn't have to do anything like this any more."
She put down the mug and went over to the door.
"You know, if Timmy's father still wants to marry me - I think I'd rather like to settle down. He was, well - all right. Not like the city men, if you get what I mean."
Betty rose, and stood there with her hands on her hips.
"It's fine for you then, isn't it. But what about me? You don't care, do you! Leaving me to explain to Max. It's not safe, either, for me on my own, the way some of the customers are. You didn't ask him about me, did you! I've been on the game a bit too long. I'm not good enough."
May looked at her for a moment before answering quietly.
"Matter of fact, I did ask him. He said he'd be around. It all depends on whether you really want to find him. As for not being good enough, that's a load of rubbish. I think, though," she paused thoughtfully, "that it helps to know you're a bit bad. His name's Jesus, in case you're interested."
She closed the door and was gone.
-------GOD WEARS JANDALS-------
Well, go on. Why shouldn't God wear jandals?
And drive a Holden with a noisy muffler...
Whenever He visits New Zealand to see how we're doing.
Why shouldn't He come out of a 4-Square with a bag of specials, planning to find a cabin down at the motor camp. Unles He gets talking to a sharemilker with an unused worker's room.
"It's a bit rough, but if you don't mind rats in the stud, you're welcome to spend the night. The wife'll do you a cut lunch for your trip tomorrow, too."
Or - do you see Him arriving at Auckland International Airport in His personal 747? The flurry of security. The VIP lounge. All formalities discretely waived.
The tall figure in dark glasses escorted smoothly to a waiting Godmobile with deeply tinted windows. A convoy of cars moving off at speed towards a five-star hotel. An aide signing the account for the suite of rooms.
And checking the itinerary; Marsden Point, Waitangi, the smelter, and dinner at Vogel House after talks in the Beehive.
Doesn't quite click, does it.
Then - just a question. What sort of lifestyle do we try for? Who makes the rules of our game?
Let's face it. When it comes to our way of life and the way we handle money, we're in it the way our friendly finance company spells it out.
The TV commercials give us the guidelines. We read the glossy ads for inspiration.
After all, we deserve the biggest, boldest and best. Like right now. We must be the same as others. Or, preferably, a wee bit better; just enough to notice. And we'll work all the hours there are, 'way into the future as long as we can have everything instantly.
Why should we worry. Inflation'll make the repayments look like peanuts. Then there's overtime. And Mum's job. Redundancy? Cut-backs? They're for others. Not us.
So the house must be b-i-g. Tiled roof, bronze alu- joinery, spa pool and shagpile. The car has tons of grunt, the video system captures everything, and we're right into computers.
You see... I'll let you into a teensy, weensy secret.. We're Christians.
Isn't that great. The born-again variety. Just like you- know-who in America.
And so we have a duty to show the sinners around us that God is pouring on the goodies. Because we're special.
What? Oh, no, they're not paid for. This is the twentieth century. It's different.
Yes, we know the Bible disapproves of usury.
But nowadays it's different.
And, okay, covetousness gets a bit of a mention in the Ten Commandments. But that's just a warning against going to extremes.
We're different nowadays. Different.
Mum lives on Valium. The kids snarl at us and never seem to enjoy all the good things we've given hem. Me, I reckon I'll sleep better once I've refinanced the third mortgage. Okay, we've all been under pressure lately. But it's only an attack of Satan.
Er - isn't it?
Have we been conned? All that luxury we take for granted - is it little more than a padded cell? With us as the mentally disturbed inmates. After all, gimme-gimme is something we smack our brats for saying. What makes it suddenly become okay - spiritual, even - on our lips?
Ask yourself this question. Take the sort of prosperity you enjoy. Not Bob Jones. Not T.L.Osborne. You. And ask yourself what on earth is the connection between your prosperity and the blessing of God.
After all - supposing He wanted us to live. Really live. Understand what makes life tick. Get dirt under our fingernails and calluses on our hands. Learn to hammer a couple of pieces of hundred-by-fifty boric-treated together. Keep the car a year or so longer, and have a go putting in new rings and mains and things.
What if He wanted us to live where we're really at, instead of putting on a false front. We might have to get a slightly grottier house, buy some furniture at the auction mart. Even wait for a few weeks or months for the things we need.
Husband and wife have to get something going together, if they want to live in reality. No good Jim pushbiking to work if Jan's running up an account at the boutique. It won't work if Dave's demanding his evening out with the boys each week while Stella is tied to the house by her toddlers.
We've got to see eye-to-eye on this.
That way, we might just learn to live. Involvement, not a mere chequebook existence. Not pre-packed now and a mortgaged future.
No more excuses. "We moved into town for the children's education". "My wife would never agree to it". "My husband'd job demands we live like this". "We're so busy that we need a bit of comfort when we come home."
No more insistence on being squeaky-clean. Ladies and gentlemen.
Keeping up with the extravagant and unreal standards and fads that pass for normal today and essential tomorrow. Making us more and more out of touch with life as God designed it to be lived...
Remember the old poem?
"O fat white woman whom nobody loves
Why do you walk through the fields in gloves
With corn breast-high and soft to the touch:
Missing so much and so much?"
-------PLAYING FOR SAFETY-------
We had to have him killed.
There was no option, really. Distasteful business, you've no idea, but a person like that can cause a fearful amount of mischief.
Look at it from our point of view.
D'you realise how scathing he was about our building programme? The man would ridicule - yes, ridicule - the business men who only wanted a fair degree of recognition for their donation.
I mean! That's what keeps the money flowing, for goodness' sake.
And then the fellow praised to the skies some pensioner who sidled up and dripped a few coppers in the box. Big deal - probably costs more than that just to count it and bank it.
Doesn't justify killing him, did you say. I haven't begun yet.
His whole attitude to sin was upsetting to us. We teach holiness, as you well know. And our standards are unbelievably high. But the man used to go round saying "you're forgiven; okay, I forgive you" in a way that made a mockery of justice.
There was the time - it made my fingers itch to throw a nice jagged piece of rock at him - when four roughs from those shacks in the valley came bursting in on one of his endless lectures. I saw the whole thing. They were carrying a filthy hammock affair with some wretch lying on it. Couldn't move properly or something. And the four of them had come on the off-chance of getting their miserable friend healed.
Did he what?
No! That's precisely why I was so annoyed. Most of us had become used to his - well, demonstrations - by then. But this time the man paused in mid-sentence, looked quizzically at the four brutes, nodded, and said to the cripple "your sins are forgiven".
Just like that. The fellow hadn't even mentioned sin, let alone promised to give anything up or say he was sorry.
That's not the punch-line, though. I was seething at all this slap-happy forgiveness and must have snorted or something, because the man wheeled round and pointed straight at me.
"In case," he said, "you doubt my authority to forgive, perhaps a healing will prove something."
Sarcastic, he was. Nobody speaks to me like that. I turned on my heel and left.
So, I don't know if the cripple was healed. Why should I care?
But that's only one example. It was the whole tone of his teaching that forced us to silence him.
Think about it. Our whole life - and our livelihood, I might add - revolved around services and sermons and Bible study. There's nobody with a higher concept of God anywhere. God as judge, God as creator. Omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent - why, it brings tears to my eyes every time I repeat the words.
Glorious concepts. You couldn't better them if you tried.
But him! Undermined all the dignity and severity and justice that we've been teaching for generations. By going the informal way and talking to God as... Well, as...
Yes, of course the rabble latched on to it. They would. It's cozy. It reeks of safety and intimacy and family. And makes those stupid no-hopers think they can barge straight up to God without so much as a by-your-leave.
He traded on their ignorance, of course. One of my colleagues wrote a brilliant thesis - utterly brilliant - on the vast difference between the office of fatherhood which one might with reverence ascribe to God, and the - well, untidy - "Daddy" business that this man was teaching. But how do you get across those sort of distinctions to the man in the street?
What? You feel I had something personal against the man? You'd be absolutely right!
It wasn't sufficient for him to teach the populace new doctrines. That would have been bad enough.
But he went further. He attacked us. In public. Actors, wage-earners he called us. Made snide remarks about the way we pray in meetings - and got a round of applause by suggesting that talking to God should be a private thing.
He had some sort of catch-phrase. Something about God having a kingdom. That's it. The Kingdom of God.
Sounds harmless? None of his teaching was harmless, I tell you. There was always an anti-establishment undercurrent. All the time. As if he felt he had to shake everything within reach.
Let me explain. Then perhaps you'll agree we were right in - ah - having him killed.
It's nice to say that God is a king. The sort who is somewhere far away. In heaven or whatever. In fact, that's what I've always taught. And then I tell the congregation that it's people like us who know what God wants - and so we tell them what to do.
It keeps our religion going with no disturbances.
But him! He made out that his God can speak to everyone. That building to find out what he wants.
Any time, any place, that's the way this Kingdom business functions.
And of course there were any number of people daft enough to believe it.
What? No, of course I don't believe God gets in touch with people. I'd have been the first to have heard Him if that'd been the case.
And, look - if all this new Kingdom teaching is so good - how d'you explain away all the blessings we've known in the past? We've had some grand times in this building, I can tell you. And my family have been involved here for generations, so I ought to know.
Well, that's it in a nutshell. We've done the crowds a favour by arranging to have that fellow killed. It's better that one person bites the dust than thousands get led astry.
They'll be back at the services within a few weeks, mark my words. I'll give 'em a proper tongue-lashing, too. Plus a lecture on repentance. That'll get them on their knees down at the front. It'll be a lovely sight!
And I don't mind admitting I'll be glad when the crowds start coming back. Collections have dropped to next to nothing - and that could affect my salary!
It wouldn't do for someone in my position to go short, would it. I mean - I'm supposed to represent God to those people out there, for heaven's sake.
It's an awkward business, lying on your back, trying to pack a bearing with grease.
And in the semi-darkness of the shed, in the dust of the earth floor, everything seems designed for discomfort.
You know how the tools you're using always seem to work their way out of reach? Or finish up back on the rack over the bench. And it was vital for my business that I fixed the bearing. The wheel had been running hot yesterday, and the load would be as big - or bigger - tomorrow.
So it was with mixed feelings that I heard one of the double doors creak open, and a voice call out.
"Under here," I yelled and, to make the best of the interruption, added "Push that grease this way, will you?"
For the next half-hour my visitor fetched and carried in response to my instructions. The job became a lot easier than I'd feared. And we managed a fair bit of conversation as well.
We agreed that the government was hopeless and seemed hell-bent on crippling a transport business like mine. We discussed the state of the fishing, and I found he knew the lake better than I did.
And I was just about to ask him what he did for a crust, when the creak of the door announced a second visitor.
"Jim! I hope I'm not interrupting anything."
I replied rather unconvincingly that it was all right. But my expression, fortunately hidden, said otherwise. It was the local reverend on one of his visits. And he and I didn't really see things the same way.
"Sorry to bother you and your - ah - friend. Good-day to you, sir. I just looked in to wish you well, Jim. And - ah - to give you a warm invitation to a special meeting we're having tomorrow evening."
I couldn't resist it.
"Fund-raising campaign, reverend?" I asked sweetly.
His voice was defensive.
"No! Well, not really. Well - ah - certainly anyone who wants to contribute to our new building will find opportunity so to do. But, remember, Jim," his voice took on a confidential tone, "you wouldn't be giving to me, you know. You'd be giving to God."
I made an irritated movement which in the confined space proved to be my undoing. The gesture dislodged a hefty clod of mud which fell straight into my eye. In my reflex attempt to avoid it, I jerked my head sharply to the side, hitting it against the unyielding rim of the off-side wheel.
My temper snapped. In short, simple, basic little biological words I expressed what I thought about lumps of mud, wheel-rims, reverends, religious buildings and fund-raising campaigns.
There was a poignant silence when I paused to breathe. Then the reverend spoke, chidingly.
"Jim - what a dreadful exhibition. I never thought I would live to see the day when a man of your calibre..."
And to my surprise, my first visitor came to my defence.
"Shut up, will you! Go and learn what it's like to do an honest day's work. Get some dirt under your fingernails and stop begging for that wretched mausoleum of yours."
There was a gasp, then the sound of a slammed door and rapidly departing footsteps. I decided it was safe to wriggle out.
"You're reprieved, Jim. I hope you didn't mind me getting rid of your friend."
I looked at the man with rising interest.
"No. Not at all. In fact I'm a little surprised at what you said to him. Don't you believe in God?"
He looked at me with a slight smile.
"Don't you, Jim?"
"Well. Matter of fact, I do. But not like that fellow does. Look... I've sat out by the lake at night. There's the stars, hanging there. Seems you could just reach out and touch them. But you can't. And - well - I think that if God put each star up there, and made the lake, and the flowers... Well, he's not going to want some stupid little building with everyone sitting there, hot and sticky."
It was quite a speech, for me. The man nodded.
"But Jim, don't people need to go to those stupid little buildings? There's an awful lot of evil in the world. Won't it do people good to go there and be told what's right and what's wrong?"
"It's largely a waste of time," I said emphatically. "Every government we've had makes laws against this and that. With fines or prison for breaking them. But what's the use? People are people. Rules and good ideas won't change what we are. If God wants us to be different, He's got to get inside us. Change us. At least, that's the way I see it."
"And if you thought that God would really change people in that way, what sort of new religion would you start, Jim?"
I had to think about that one. Slowly I said:
"I wouldn't have a religion. I'd - I'd tell people that God could change them, and then leave it up to them. And Him. It'd work out, too. Because if God can control the plants and the birds and the weather - then He'll let people know what He wants. You know, a little at a time. People would learn who to speak to. Who to help. Rather like you came here this afternoon and helped me get the bearing fixed. That could have been God sent you, you know."
The man had listened very carefully. But even when I stopped he still seemed to be listening.
Then, very deliberately, he put his hand on my shoulder. "James, son of Alphaeus," he said "follow me".
-------MADE WITH HANDS-------
It had seemed a good idea at the time.
Mentally, Nathan upbraided himself for allowing the king's enthusiasm to affect him.
Oh, it had all been reasonable enough. Nathan sitting at table, had been glad to watch David at last enjoying palace comforts. Ornate couches and richly carved panelling were a welcome change from years of sweaty irritation, living as a soldier under canvas.
But King David had pointed out through the lattice to where a simple pavilion was pitched. Its curtains moved in the night breeze. And the golden glory of the Shekinah spilled out into the darkness.
"Look, Nathan," he had said. "Just a tent! After four hundred years of being carried from place to place - surely God deserved something better?"
Nathan had nodded. And David's mind had leaped at the problem, groping for an answer.
"God should have the best," he said firmly. "To show that all the wandering is a thing of the past. A symbol of permanence, telling the world that God's people have fulfilled their destiny. A temple!"
And Nathan, relaxing in the amber glow of the lamps, and with the king's food lying warm in his belly, had commended the idea.
But now he was only too clearly aware of his foolishness. He, a prophet, had no right to offer mere opinions. His task was to stand in the presence of God; then to pass on what he heard and saw.
No more. No less.
He had left the king. Now he walked slowly to the tent which held the Ark.
A picture welled up from deep within him. At once so simple to his spirit - and so intricate to his mind.
He saw the temple. Magnificiently built of polished stone. Everywhere the gleam of gold. Surpassing even the buildings constructed for Baal and Moloch.
And there was the irony of it. For although Nathan knew - knew for a certainty - that this temple to the Only True God would eclipse all others... yet it would achieve this by mere effort. Mere spendour. Mere wealth and size and craftsmanship.
Instead of the unadorned, manifest presence of God who struck love, awe and terror into the hearts of any who might approach.
Once again it was a matter of human pride expressed in human ideas. Nathan remembered a previous occasion. He had been a young man when the people demanded a king - a visible champion to rival the rulers of other nations.
Then, God had fallen into step with the clever inventions man had devised. As indeed He would do yet again, though David would not be the one allowed to construct the temple. That task must wait for his son.
But each time, whether monarch or building God was being made more remote. Less accessible.
Nathan sighed. For he also saw the chilly permanence of a temple. In the past it had been so easy to roll up curtains, uproot tent pegs, coil the ropes, slide poles through rings, raise the Ark - and be away!
Now it would be a different story. People would come to regard the temple as God's house. When even the heaven of heavens could not contain Him.
What would happen when God's people had become as rigid and unmoving as the building itself?
The picture Nathan saw began to change. The mighty armies of the living God - those seldom-seen guardians who stood sentinel around Israel - would be withdrawn. The presence of the Lord would diminish. And marauding heathens would plunder, destroy, raze to the ground. Some lessons must needs to learned the hard way.
Nathan knelt in the light of the Glory that shone out from the tent. There would be no sleep for him tonight.
-------SCRIBES AND PHARISEES-------
Emotive word, Pharisee.
We use it as a put-down. An insult.
Pity, really. Because Pharisees play a big part in the gospels. Quite a large volumn of Jesus' teaching is to them. Or at them.
So it's fair to assume that he had something worthwhile to say about them. And that it's relevant for us. Today.
And, in case the word "Pharisee" still irritates you - let me go a step further. Pharisees are only one half of a double act. "Scribes and Pharisees"; that's the complete package. Which you could re-phrase as "religious communicators and leaders; writers and speakers." And I'm a writer, so that entitles me to bring the subject into the open.
Every job has its hazards...
Industrial diseases. High-risk areas. Stress-related activities.
It's only decent for the boss to warn the workers.
Unfortunately, we aren't always nice and balanced when we're told that what we're doing Remember the outcry when hard hats and earmuffs became a serious issue on the industrial scene?
"It'll make the men careless". "Whadya think we are - pansies or something?" "I suppose you know better than us!"
Eager to learn, us humans.
And let's face it, even though Jesus came on the scene in "the fulness of time", it was a little late in the day to help some of the scribes and Pharisees.
For one thing, they'd had a gutsful of messiahs bobbing up every few years. Each one had to be checked out. Just in case.
And that's fair enough.
But the Pharisees had got something going - a well-oiled organisation. It worked. And the teachings of Jesus didn't have much in common with their religious system.
That's very upsetting.
Nobody gets overjoyed at being told they've been climbing the wrong tree all their life.
Perhaps it wouldn't have been so bad if Jesus had held leaders' conventions and pointed out their errors in private. That way, the folk in the churches back at Hicksville needn't have known, so us Pharisees wouldn't need to feel embarrassed.
Or do a damn thing about it.
Trouble was - Jesus hedged his bets by pointing out the problems of the S and P brigade in public. Taught it to the crowds. At length.
That's fighting talk. Boat-rocking. Subversion.
But... Let's try taking if from my point of view.
I'm a scribe.
Part of the good old firm. Messrs. Scribes and Pharisees Ltd., religious outfitters.
And I've got a couple of choices.
I can clutch at my pride and wrap it majestically round me (emperor's new clothes a speciality), defying this latest messiah to teach me anything.
Or I can reluctantly admit that every job has its problems - mebbe it wouldn't hurt just to listen (only listen, mind, let's not get carried away) to some of those depressingly negative things that the self-styled son of God says so strongly.
So we're legalists.
(For heaven's sake: d'you know the problems some folk in the pew have got? For that matter d'you know my problems? Of course I give rules on just about everything. Even if it seems to aggravate problems rather than cure them.)
So we're hypocrites.
(Actors is the word he uses. So? We're high profile public figures. What'd folk think if a Pharisee climbed into the pulpit and said "aw, look, this is boring: let's go down to the beach". We're not paid to let 'em down like that. They want sincerity regardless of how we feel at the time.)
So we shut up the Kingdom of Heaven...
(We don't go in, ourselves; we don't let others in, says the messiah. Sorry, that's where I have to draw the line. This "Kingdom" business sounds nice and spiritual. But there's an ugly undertone to it. The implication is that everyone gets to be ruled by God direct if they're in that Kingdom of His. But have you thought through the problems? Folk'll go off and do the daftest things, and merrily justify it all with a "God told me so there!" I know 'em, believe me. And not only that - what if God talks to them first and not to me? Where would my authority be then, I ask you!)
You see - that's how things look from the viewpoint of a scribe or a Pharisee. Quite honestly, God can appear as a bit of a threat to us. Remember that lovely phrase of C.S.Lewis? "He's not a tame lion." That just about sums it all up.
Oh, I know we can stand on the platform with tears streaming down our cheeks as congregation, choir and musicians triumphantly proclaim "love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all". But deep, deep down there's the feeling that we've already given up everything to be in this position, so God would never shift us.
Unfortunately, in the Kingdom, any do-it-yourself kingship is in danger of becoming rapidly bio-degradable. The real King is intensely jealous of His position.
So - it's a risky business being a scribe or a Pharisee. But perhaps a couple of safeguards might brighten the picture.
One is - don't, even by inference, expect people to take your teaching or your exposition of scripture or your whatever as accurate. Insist that they get God to confirm it. Sure, that'll slow things drastically. But it'll get things established on a sound foundation! Or rejected - which is just as good.
The other safeguard is - a leader leads. Obvious? Not really. We tend to confuse "leader" with "director". Get the difference?
A director tells people what to do. A leader goes off and does it first. He doesn't particularly bother to look over his shoulder to see if anyone's following. He leads the way. Teaches by example. With words as a bonus, fair enough. But always by example. That way, success and failure are right out in the open, for others to evaluate.
Oh - just one thing. Don't swallow any of this. Go and check it out with God.
He's the boss. It's the safest way.
-----GETTING READY FOR THE END-----
There's an air of expectancy among Christians.
Time feels short. As if we're on the downhill run to the close of the age.
Intriguingly, it's largely a matter of personal conviction. We're not seeing the rise of millennial sects that were so common last century. Instead, individuals are feeling a quickening of pace, an interest in world events and prophecy.
And a desire to tidy up any loose ends in their lives and practice.
If we are in fact living at the end of the age, there is a scriptural blue-print that could be worth studying.
That blue-print is found in the feasts of Israel.
There were three times in the Jewish calendar when God's people were commanded to come into His presence.
At the Passover. At the feast of Pentecost.
And at the feast of tabernacles.
These feasts - in common with the rest of the Old Covenant - are shadow. Allegory. A three-act drama illustrating a complex and concrete reality.
The first two feasts set out symbolically the opening of this age. Passover, with its slain lamb and sprinkled blood, became the atoning death of the Lord Jesus Christ.
And Pentecost became the bestowing of the Holy Spirit.
On both occasions, an encounter with God. And in the understanding of those feasts, believers were prepared for the fulfilment and reality of what took place at the start of this age.
Now, many believe we are living in the closing years. If this is so, the final feast - the third in which God's people stand in His presence begins to have a significance for us.
It's an odd feast, the feast of Tabernacles. But then, so many of the commands given by God to His people over the centuries have been, essentially, unusual. It's just that religious upbringing inhibits any reaction to their intrinsic strangeness. Circumcision, baptism, the building of the ark, the behaviour of the prophets - all are off-beat actions with a strong significance.
So, too, is the feast of Tabernacles.
For seven days, God's people were required to leave their homes and live in ramshackle booths. Jerrybuilt shacks that each family made of branches torn from the trees and hedgerows.
Seven days in which home comforts, convenience and safety were exchanged for something makeshift and open to the elements. Where people left the costly luxury of their fine buildings to live, eat and sleep in primitive simplicity as a family.
Depending on the Lord to moderate wind, rain and sun.
And what were they to do during that week of al fresco living? The King James version gives an appalling mistranslation when it speaks of a "solemn" feast. For the Hebrew word is one which expresses extreme joy, in association with dancing, drinking and feasting. And this is the way in which Israel has always celebrated the feast of Tabernacles.
Strangely, the Jews "forgot" to keep this feast right from the time they set foot in Israel until the day they returned from captivity in Babylon.
Perhaps at the start, as they entered the promised land, they were too busy putting down roots and directing all their efforts to building permanent homes.
Then, later, perhaps they were too cosy in the well- ordered routine of their fine structures to risk the discomfort of the elements.
And finally, in Babylon, they extended into the religious realm the structuring they had begun in domestic matters. Exiled from the manifest presence of God in the temple, they set up weekly meetings on the Sabbath. The gatherings were called "synagogues". Later the word came to be applied to the buildings they met in.
Interestingly, the prophet Zechariah tells us that the feast of Tabernacles is one which the whole world - Gentile as well as Jew - will be required to observe for ever. Doubtless this could have a literal fulfillment. But I suggest that it has a spiritual application; that the prophecy underlines the fact that the feast is relevant for us. It is not merely a quaint historical custom. It is not m
It is an event to be literally fulfilled in the lives of believers before the return of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The relevance of the feast of Tabernacles for the Christian can be seen in our fondness for form and structure, organisation and things.
Under the New Covenant, our relationship with God the Father through His Son, the Lord Jesus is direct and personal. God is the organiser, co-ordinating each individual believer. People with specialist tasks - from apostles to deacons - are servants. Helpers, not controllers.
But the history of the Christian religion over the past nineteen hundred years has shown a pre-occupation with buildings, and a strong emphasis on the authority of the clergy. "The priesthood of all believers" has in practice been little more than a slogan, with most religious duties being done in certain authorised places, in specified ways by selected people. And although most denominations pay lipservice to the freedom of the laity, there is a great gulf fixed between the theory and what is actually done.
However, if the feast of Tabernacles has any relevance for believers at the end of the age, it will be to signify a relinquishing of the expensive form and comfort of our buildings and systems. Instead, families will learn to live in the spirit, informally taking life as it comes from God.
For how long? Perhaps for seven years if the prophetic pattern of a year for a day is appropriate.
Which raises a further question. Is it unrealistic to expect the Lord Himself to shepherd us, to teach us, to lead us into informal witnessing and evangelism for seven years?
What if our tightly-knit church programmes were to be set aside? What if the artificial glitter - or gloom - of our meetings ceased? What if the clergy ceased to carry all the burden of doing, supervising and organising?
Instead, would it be so contrary to what God intended the New Covenant to produce if ordinary believers, mere believers, were to break bread in their homes... Baptise converts among family and friends in swimming pool or creek... Exorcise... Anoint with oil... Lay on hands...
In the Gospel of John there is a sudden appearance of the Lord Jesus in the middle of the feast of tabernacles. This gospel has the characteristic of being more selective in its accounts than the other three. Could the story be essentially prophetic telling of a personal encounter with the Lord which remains to be fulfilled in these closing years?
If so - can we recognise Him? Can we recognise His hand at work? The book of Jonah shows the prophet sitting outside the city in a roughly-made booth after preaching his message.
He is unhappy with the result. His audience rightly deserves judgement; God gives them mercy. Jonah sulks, unable to identify with the spiritual awakening.
Many have predicted a revival at the end of the age. And Nineveh's repentance typifies such a turning to God.
But what if the feast of tabernacles sets the pattern for just such a mood of the Spirit? What if individuals and families are changed into kings and priests of our God in the informality of home and everyday life?
Could we recognise the hand of God?
Perhaps it won't be long before we know the answer.
-------THE GREAT GAME-------
Together, they lived, laughed and adventured.
Words are too vague, too parochial to describe Their love and Their joy.
We are limited by what currently pleases us. By what we understand. By our physical laws which, for a brief instant, have held good in our particular corner of the omniverse.
But for Them, there was infinity in which to delight. Challenging and being challenged.
Multiplying such occasions over and over again. Yet never repeating, always fresh as a spring morning. Sometimes heroically demanding. Sometimes - for They never knew the artificial pomposity which man calls dignity - amazingly slapstick, a titanic comedy of practical jokes and belly- laughter.
And - always - love. And joy.
Imagine a desire within Them to increase and spread Their joy. To channel every last throb of Their unbounded passion into devising the mightiest challenge of all.
In our human terms They debated and planned, surveyed and researched. Prepared the detailed blueprints that omitted nothing, that bore Their stamp of excellence in every line and dimension.
Vast was the plan, yet no extremity or wing was really far from the centre. Each part merged and meshed with a continual, yet changing harmony. But to each part was given a wealth of independence, of freedom, of liberty.
And each part, whether (in the concepts of man) sub-atomic or galactic, was to be in fact part of Themselves.
For this plan transcended all theory. This adventure went beyond all mere constructing. Into the Great Game (for so They thought of it) They would send Their very being.
Themselves, but endlessly and infinitely redivided into innumberable myriads of parts. Grouped or scattered, each segment would hold within it Their life, Their capacity for love and for joy.
But the Great Game was to have purpose. It would not merely and endlessly mirror and reduplicate Them - They could not consider producing such consummate and perfect boredom as that would represent. No; upon each part would be imposed forgetfulness - of its origin, and of the purpose of the Great Game.
And everywhere and in all things there would be life, consciousness, intelligence, intuition, sentience. Some, simplistic. Some, vast and awesome. But life there would be: on every level of the spectrum, on every frequency of vibration, or every radiated wavelength. As that life awoke into self awareness, then would start the discovery of the Great Game.
For the canvas was liberally spread with clues. Clues which gave the lie to the seemingly endless cycle of things - without beginning, without end - and which would evoke a yearning deep within the spirit. Which would whisper "there is a purpose; there is a way, there is a goal".
To be sure, there would be obstacles. Principles and laws would also be built in. Causing detours and barriers, setting in motion rebellion and exploitation. Preoccupying some who felt the laws and their obeying to be an end in themselves; distracting others who felt challenged to pit their whole being against them.
So They dispersed Themselves. Yet They ceased not to be Themselves. For whatever one might subtract from infinity, infinity still remains awaiting more subtraction. Nor did They stay aloof. Theirs was to be an active involvement. A communion with all the parts of the Great Game.
Walking among the pieces. Assuming, even, their guise. Living at first hand in the limitations and trivialities of the parts. Allowing the rebellion and exploitation to seize and attempt conquest of Them. Thus, in a burst of agony and triumph, to point the Great Game towards a certain (though distant) climax.
For the time would sure come when every part, every piece, every being, would have picked up the clues. Would have become aware that in each was life. And purpose. And would have learned in a welling-up of revelation that there could be communion with Them.
Aware, too, that each was not alone in the Great Game. That others, often so different from themselves, often scarce visible to their sight, were involved. Not in any sense to be reverenced. Never to be feared. Not to be dominated. But acknowledged with good humour and understanding of the part all others played.
And slowly, yet in perfect sequence, all the individual living pieces would make procession back to their origin. To return to Them. To be re-united. But with every atom of individuality, every speck of experience, every glint of memory added together to enhance, to bedeck, to glorify.
Not to be merged or swamped in some amorphous mixture. But to be; in greater love and joy than ever before.
That God might be all, and in all.
(Don't take our word for it: try 1 Kings 13)
The young bloke - call him Ben - stopped throwing rocks to persuade the redolent billy-goat to move downwind.
It had suddenly turned into One of Those Days.
God had just spoken to him.
There was no doubt about it. There hadn't been any voice booming from the sky and knocking half-ripe olives off the trees. Nor even a sudden angel materialising on the boulder beside him. Only the unglamorous but undeniable awareness that someone - well, Someone - had written something indelibly on the surfaces of Ben's mind a second or so ago.
Ben reviewed the message.
The first bit didn't surprise him. A message for the current king, saying that the rather yucky synthetic religion he'd gone and set up was going to come to a sticky end.
"Goody", thought Ben. "N
The second part was a bit of a supernatural demo, to show that the first section wasn't just another grizzle from a wingeing fundamentalist.
"Phew", thought Ben. "Might convince our gracious king that God's serious - and perhaps my head'll stay in place a little longer".
And the third part was for Ben. After he'd played postman and done the demo, it was off home tout de suite, by another route, and with not so much as a hamburger or thickshake until he hit home turf.
"???" thought Ben. It was nice to figure in the message, but somehow his lot lacked the drama of the first two bits.
Anyhow, there was no time to waste and Ben waved au revoir to the billygoat who thought standing upwind of people was a macho thing to do.
Burst of travel music. Cross-cut to long shot of Bethel's main drag. Zoom in on big gateway. Voice-over by Tom Bradley to explain things for the viewers.
"We're looking at the New Worship Centre set up by King Jeroboam as an alternative to the temple of the One True God back in Jerusalem. The King has stressed the convenience of having a local place of worship".
Enter Ben on moth-eaten donkey.
Now, it's one thing to be a man of God or a prophet or whatever and enjoy the buzz that comes from being given a message to deliver. But that doesn't make much difference to the sinking feeling and knee-knocking phenomenon that switches on as you walk into the limelight.
Ben was no exception. The king's counterfeit religion was a multi-million shekel enterprise, underwritten by the most prestigious merchant bankers of the day, and gave employment to untold trendy types to help with the luscious ceremonies and festivals the king had dreamed up.
Centre stage stood a golden statue. A bull. And Ben blushed, knowing its symbolism didn't relate to Israel's agricultural economy.
In those less paranoid days, kings were somewhat more accessible. King Jeroboam was standing up by the altar, preparing to burn a load of incense.
Ben grits his teeth and ploughs a straight furrow through the crowd. His rural manners achieve results, and pretty soon he's eyeball-to-eyeball with the king.
"Thus says the Lord..." he begins. And although it sounds a cliche to us, it wasn't strewn around too carelessly in those more enlightened times, and so it's the king's turn to stick his thumb in his mouth and grab for a security blanket.
Ben turns to the altar and harangues it, saying there'll be a new king (Josiah by name, Jeroboam mades a mental note) who will close the place down by the simple technique of burning all the surrogate priests on the aforesaid altar.
That nearly spells curtains for poor old Ben. The king forgets to be scared and goes to beckon his security guards. At that point there's an incident which hadn't been in Ben's synopsis.
The king's brawny arm withers, just like that. And is stuck out like a signpost, all gaunt and skeletal, much to the dismay of everyone except Ben. He whispers a quick thank- you heavenward and gets on with the second part of the job. The aforesaid demo.
"Now!" says he. There is an earsplitting ker-rash and the side of the altar explodes outwards and flaming, smoking coals and ashes cascade on to the mosaic floor.
"That's to sort of confirm what I predicted" explains Ben.
The king isn't arguing. Right now he'd give his right arm to have his right arm back. Or something. So he politely asks Ben if he could put in a good word for him. Ben says okay, has a talk to God, and there's a sigh from the crowd (not to mention the king) as the arm suddenly fleshes out and goes mobile again.
Ignoring the offer of a cut lunch and all expenses from the king, Ben makes for home. He's still under orders.
But. And it's a big but. There's another prophet. This one has heard about the fun and games with the king at Bethel, and rides licketty-split to intercept our Ben who is jogging along on his faithfully flea-bitten donkey.
This old bloke finds Ben under an oak avoiding the worst effects of the noon-day sun and bids him back to his shack for a snack.
The sides of Ben's stomach are rubbing together and his throat has all the charm of a much-used rugby boot, and he staunchly croaks: "no way; God said not to".
Which should've ended the matter. Except that the older man nods sympathetically and says:"fair 'nough. But I'm a prophet too, look you, and an angel told me to tell you a thus says the Lord, namely, come and have a meal with me and the family, indeed to goodness."
That was where Ben blows it. He should have shrugged a famished shoulder and said politely "tough titty, tosh. Your guidance is your headache; I get mine direct." But he doesn't. He accepts the other fellow's say-so and goes off for munchies.
To cut a long story short, the meal is spoiled somewhat by a bona fide thus says the Lord to Ben via the older guy, saying in effect that he'd had his metaphorical chips.
Ben kick-starts his donkey and departs. There's an impending sense of the Sunday-night horrors all around. And sudenly, with a whoosh and a roar, out from the bushes leaps the great-grandaddy of the MGM lion.
A swift thwack from a clawed and furry paw and Ben is standing in the presence of God wondering how on earth (...on earth?) he's going to explain things. While Ben's mortal remains are somewhat kersplattered on the Israeli tar-seal.
And, just so's nobody thinks it's an accident, God arranges it so that lion and donkey stand guard over the corpse, with no hungry looks from Leo or dashed to freedom from Dobbin.
Which set-up understandably attracts the attention of other road-users; and probably pointed the odd moral or two.
Like - it may be a trifle scary to have God say go and do something. Dangerous even.
But not half so dangerous as getting your guidance second-hand.
-------TOO MUCH TO LOSE-------
Have you noticed?
The way the word "Kingdom", or the phrase "Kingdom of God", keeps cropping up.
Fairly normal people have been coming up to me, flourishing an open Bible under my nose, saying "hey, look - I've never noticed this before".
Each time, something from the gospels. On "Kingdom".
I suppose I should be getting excited.
What if God's doing something new?
Or, more to the point, what if He's doing something old? Something that we should have been into years ago. Like - two thousand years ago.
Only this time, God's going to apply a bit of pressure. What Jesus called "compelling them to come in".
I suppose I should be getting excited. But - I'm not.
Oh, it's not that I don't want (what's the rather treacly phrase?) to "go on for the Lord".
It's just that the way Jesus teaches about God's Kingdom is rather - well - dogmatic. He makes out that in there you have to accept a highly personal rule of God. Him and you.
More to the point: Him and me.
And it's not the type of rulership where I turn up at His palace three times a week. Best suit. Scrubbed neck. Ready to sing Him a few songs and listen to a lecture about Him.
It's more demanding than that. I'm supposed to expect Him to be keeping in touch at all hours. Somebody said the other day - "you mustn't have any preconceived ideas about what God's going to do".
Thanks for nothing.
You see - this could affect me. Personally, I mean.
Look - I'll tell you something that happened to a friend of mine. Then maybe you'll see why I'm not excited.
This friend was told by God to go to a certain fellowship one Sunday morning and read a bit out of one of the gospels. Quite a specific bit, if you get me.
Okay, my friend set out - only to be met at the church door by the minister. Who asked him to do the Bible reading. Which was something low-key and noncommittal.
What d'you do? Have a show-down? Or take the easy way out - then go home and make your excuses to God?
My friend took the easy way out. Read what the minister asked him to. Well, wouldn't you? Then sat all miserable through the rest of the service trying out one excuse after another. Knowing they wouldn't wash, not with God.
"I couldn't cause a scene, now could I?" "He's the authority in that place, eh." "I'll do it some other time, honest."
And that's the situation I just don't want to get into.
For example - I'm a writer. Religious mags, sometimes the secular press, stories and talks and even a play on steam radio, plus the odd book under way. All right, that's a skite, but at the same time I want you to get the idea.
I have to go through editors. Which means using a bit of tact in what I write.
Which in turn makes it easier to get articles published.
Not only that, it produces nice fan mail. Perhaps you don't realise it, but Christians have a rapid-draw, heresy- sniffing, knee-jerk reaction to anything that seems directed at them. It's much nicer to receive bouquets; brickbats hurt.
Now, the trouble with t myself. God might want a few things written straight, as it were. No more nice titillating waffles about what the nasty sinners get up to "out in the world". No more "why doesn't the government do something about it" to stir us and sidetrack us. But some specific "this is how it should be"s for believers.
Which might cut my writing career short all of a once. Or, at very least, might lose me a whole lot of friends.
Once upon a time it might have been nice to listen to the teaching of a young Nazarene as he fashioned glowing word pictures of his Father's Kingdom. In those days I would have been tired of the synagogue routine, tired of the nit-picking laws of Moses, tired of the nagging of the prophets, tired of the treadmill of the psalms. And I would have been eager to say "here, Lord! I'll follow you - wherever you're going!"
But now? It's all so different. The world has changed. We've got the complete Bible. We're Christians. We're so much further ahead.
And not only that. For me personally there could be a problem with taking "the Kingdom" seriously.
It's simply this...
I've got too much to lose.
Our ward is bright and sunny. We are allowed flowers.
It isn't like some of the other wards. Have you seen the one at the end of the corridor? Dark, gloomy. I'd never ask to be transferred there.
The staff are wonderful. So understanding. Never complain, never raise their voices. Well - not often. But then, you'll never find the perfect ward, I always say - and if you do, don't ask to be transferred there. You'd only spoil it!
My bed's near a window. I can see across the fields to the village.
One day, when I'm stronger, doctor is going to take me and a few of the other patients down to the village. Do you know, he's hoping that everyone will want to come to the hospital for treatment. They won't, of course. Only a few. But wouldn't it be wonderful if they did!
Oh - excuse me. It's almost visiting time. No, you don't have to go. Just sit there, and I'll explain as we go along.
We have visiting three times a week. Each ward is different of course. But our doctor believes that this way is really the best.
Sh! Look - here they come.
First, all the ward staff. Aren't they smart. You can tell how dedicated they are, just by their faces. And now - yes, that's right, that's our doctor. Wonderful man. Highly trained. And used to be a patient himself, once, right here in this very ward.
Look - see that?
Doctor's picking up the phone. He's dialling.
It's wonderful, isn't it. Years ago it wasn't that easy. You had to get the operator. She'd put you through to tolls. They'd be delays and wrong numbers. It was hopeless. But now - tap the buttons and you're through.
Watch him. See him talking? Isn't it fantastic to think that he can phone home, just like that. He'll say how we'd love to be back home, and that we send our love and our thanks for the cards and flowers.
Now! Are you sitting comfortably? Doctor's going to tell us all that he heard. What? Oh, not necessarily what he heard this time. He's forever phoning home. It's part of his job, you see. And of course he reads a lot of books, you know - transcriptions of other people's calls. You'll like his talk. It's the highlight of visiting time...
There! Wasn't that great? Now that doctor and the ward staff have gone, we can carry on with our little chat.
What? That book on my locker? That's special. Our family history. Oh - didn't you know? Our family is quite something. Royalty, actually.
No, honest! In fact, most of us in the ward are related to royalty. Oh, well, perhaps not her sitting over in the corner there. You can always tell - no breeding, some people. But we don't say anything, not to her face.
Now, some of the staff make out that everyone in the hospital is related to royalty in some way. It's a nice thought, I suppose. But you only have to look at the way some of the other wards carry on at visiting time to know it's not true.
I'll show you something. Look!
It's my telephone. It's the great thing about this ward. You all get your own phone. Everyone!
What? No, don't be silly. Of course I didn't use it at visiting time. Imagine the row if everyone phoned home at once. And another thing - it's not plugged in.
Yes, I think there's a jack-point somewhere on the skirting down behind the bed. I could always connect it up if I wanted to use it. But it might ring at any time, mightn't it, and disturb me. I need my rest, you know.
Another thing, it could be someone playing a practical joke. Doctor warns us about receiving calls. He's seen too many patients upset by outsiders on the phone, or where they've not heard things right. It can undo all the treatment we get here.
Look - lean over a bit closer, so's I can whisper. That empty bed just across from me. No! Don't stare at it. We're not supposed to mention these things. It was some young fellow's transferred from another ward, he was.
Well, he never really settled here. Didn't seem to enjoy the visiting hours the same as the rest of us.
He'd read up on the family history and talk to the doctor when he did his rounds, but it was the phone that fascinated him.
Fiddle, fiddle, fiddle with it, he would. We tried to tell him how to use it. It's not a toy, we'd say. They'll be busy at home, we'd say, don't annoy them. If you've got something really important - dial; say your piece, hang up. Those calls must be costing someone a pretty penny, and we mustn't be extravagant.
Would he listen?
Not a bit of it. He developed this habit of ringing about every little thing. Chattering away like a monkey. About the food, the treatment, the view from the window. And about us, the cheeky beggar.
He'd - this is the silly part of it - he'd even pretend to hold conversations! I said to him "who d'you think you're fooling? They're far too busy at home for gossip". But he'd just grin and tell me to use my own phone if I wanted to.
Impertinence! I phone home as often as anyone
Anyhow, just the other day - it happened. I knew it would. The doctor's always warning us. The young fellow's phone rang.
You should've seen him. Grabbed the receiver like a mad thing and yelled "hi!" into it. No manners, this generation.
For a second or two, he just sat there, listening. Then he looked a bit startled. "Be careful", I called, "you never know who's calling".
He never heard me. A big smile spread across his face. "You're kidding," he said softly. "Honest? Okay, if you say so. I'll give it a go!"
With that, he put down the receiver and swung himself out of bed. "Come on," he said to me. "We don't have to sit here. We're not really sick. Let's go!"
Now, I'm looking forward to the time when I'm released from hospital. I don't fear it. Some day the attendants are going to wheel me down to the mortuary and the doctor will be able to write the word "completed" on my treatment card.
But the young fellow didn't mean that.
"I'm going to live outside", he explained. "We don't have to be shut away like this. And off he went, out through that door."
Well,as you can imagine it upset most of us, I can tell you. Some wanted to go with him, and others wanted the telephones banned altogether.
But then the doctor came and had a bit of a talk with us. He said these things happen, but there's no cause to get upset. It's just that some people fail to respond to treatment, that's all.
And he gave us all a strong sedative and advised us to forget all about it.
But, you know - I can't help wondering what happened to the young fellow. Wondering who phoned him.
Wondering if he'll meet his folks out there.
Sometimes the weirdest things happen around here.
Remember old Sam? We've been his accountants for years. That's him - we appealed against his assessment, and lost. Sank without trace. And I got my knuckles rapped for muttering something about a put-up job.
Well between you, me and the doorpost, quite a few of us have suspected that the local tax inspector's been on the make.
I mean - you know the sort of salary those blighters get. But have you ever seen his house. I went inside, once. Chock full of antiques.
But what can you do? Those tax boys have got it sewn up all ways. Make too much fuss and some of your clients suffer.
Still, there's been a few changes around here.
Which is why old Sam comes charging in here, wanting to shout everyone a crate or two. He'd got a tax refund. A big one.
But here's the joke. It's not from the tax office. It's from the dear old inspector himself.
Irregular? That's the understatement of the week.
Look - it seems we had a preacher come around. You might have heard of him. Jesus. The one who's been annoying the priests by preaching against them.
Well, he arrives in town. And our tax inspector gets to hear of it.
What? Him religious? Not on your life!
It's the money angle he's after. I mean, there can be a fair old cash flow in the religious game, boy! I've travelled a bit. Seen some blokes do quite well for themselves.
And don't forget - this new religion or whatever is unofficial. It doesn't get to be a registered charity. So it gets stung for tax like anybody else.
Now, when the preacher gets here, there's quite a bit of the old razz-ma-taz. Big crowds, procession, lots of shouting, speech by the mayor. Everyone trying to impress him. That sort of thing.
The inspector becomes all desperate. He's on the edge of the crowd and just can't see. Besides, there's a few of our clients who might recognise him and jab the odd elbow in his ribs or tramp his toes. "Terribly sorry, old boy, what!" Or something.
So he goes cunning. You know that row of trees? Up he clambers to get a grandstand view of the proceedings. There must've been quite a bit of huffing and puffing before he made it, but eventually, there he was. Set in place happy as Larry, and snugly camouflaged behind all those leaves.
And - that's the funny thing. All of a sudden, Jesus just stops.
There's been no warning or anything. He looks straight up into the tree and calls out: "Gidday. You'd better come on down from there. I'll be staying at your place."
As sure as I'm sitting here, that's what happened. He's not joking, and the inspector's not arguing. The poor bloke has to slither down with the crowd watching him like hawks. Making a few ribald comments when they recognise him, too.
Then, off go the two of them together. Talking like they've been pals for years. The crowd gets a bit upset at that. I mean - Jesus has got a bit of an image for being on the side of the underdog. The man in the street. And folk won't want to know if he starts mixing with types like our dear old tax
Now, that's where all this tax refund business comes in.
You see, the next thing anyone knows is that the inspector's gone out of his tiny mind.
He's actually giving money away where it looks like he's taken too much. With interest too, would you believe!
I'd give anything to know what Jesus said to the old rogue. In fact, I'm hoping some of our clients'll be listening to his preaching. Could mean we get our fees a bit more promptly, eh!
What's that? No - it's the wrong end of the year for me to take time off. Sure, I'd like to go and hear him and all that. But I'm working to a deadline as it is.
Why? You're not implying anything, are you?
Where did you get it from?
Life, I mean.
Was it bubble-packed, giftwrapped? With the elegant grey crackle finish, and the e-a-s-y payments.
And you took it home, proud as punch to have one just like all your friends. Like everyone in the street.
Life, I mean.
You plugged it in and it ran with a quiet purr, a wonder of modern plastics and micro-circuitry. With the e-a-s-y payments automatically debited from your account each month.
(Where did you say you got it from?)
It was nice to be the same as everyone else.
Until - oh, what was it, now? - until something went wrong. Nothing much. A bit of a nuisance, though.
Life, I mean.
So you twiddled a few dials, pressed a few keys. It didn't help much. Then you twisted it round to get at the back.
"No user-serviceable parts. Removal of this panel invalidates guarantee".
You phoned the shop (where did you say you got it from?) and asked for the service department. They were sorry that the fine print didn't cover that sort of problem and while you were on the line the credit manager wanted a word. Hello, sorry and that, but there's been the stupidest foul-up in the e-a-s-y payments. No, no problem, but we've increased them to cover the difference. 'Bye now.
It doesn't work terribly well and it costs more than you can afford.
Life, I mean.
You know what? You got the cheap Western version of the real thing.
It happens. Quite a few Western nations aren't above getting hold of the genuine article and copying it. Cutting corners here and there. Plastic, instead of steel. Solid- state, modular components; which means that when something goes on the blink you're in big trouble.
And one size fits all. More or less.
So you say to hell with keeping up with the Jones's and start to shop around. Looking for a model that'll work, that can tolerate running under full load.
Soon you're away from the glitter of the shopping mall, the big department stores, the suburban sprawl. Out past paddocks and stands of bush. In your search for a better model.
Life, I mean.
And there's a bit of a rough sign tacked to the fence. The track winds round to an old shed. A father-and-son partnership work there. Shaping a steel shaft in a spray of cutting oil on the lathe. Making up a frame with the eye- searing snap and glare of an arc welder.
They make you welcome, wiping calloused hands on grimy overalls. No sales patter. No urbane accents. Just down-to- earth directness.
Having trouble? So what's new? Where did you say you got it from? Take it back, dump it on the counter and walk out. The contract? We chased that one up to the High Court a while back; it isn't worth a light.
But - try our one. Check it out. Hand made from go to whoa. Made to work. Made to last. Made to fit.
Snags? They actually tell you the snags. It runs with a bit of noise. Gives us free advertising they say, grinning at each other. And there's nothing automatic. You have to learn to handle it, maintain it, adjust the verniers to suit changing conditions.
But it's rugged. Only trouble is, most folk are a bit hesitant to operate it flat out, take it into heavy situations and check the power response. It's meant to go at full throttle if you like it that way.
Life, they mean.
There's only one thing that's bugging you. No, two things. You're not that good at servicing. You've been spoiled - and let down - with pre-programmed, sealed-unit everything.
No problem, they say. They've a rep - another of the family - who's mobile, knows every last cog and pinion, and is on call at all hours. There's a number to ring; they've an R/T linkup to put you straight through.
And the other thing?
The cost, you say. You've had a gutsful of e-a-s-y payments. This time you want to see the bottom line in big bold type.
Again they look at each other. Again, the grins.
Funny you should ask, they say. We're not in this for they money. It's - well - it's something we do. For free. Give it a go.
Real life, they mean.
-------9 OUT OF 10-------
It feels a bit - funny to be talking to normal people after all these years.
I mean... when I was a leper, no-one wanted to know, did they!
Me, I'd teamed up with some others who were the same way. Ten of us, all told. Which made the village brats think twice about chucking stones at us.
We weren't a pretty sight. You can't keep sores and ulcers clean and bandaged properly. So folk held their noses and kept their distance.
But then one of us - old Joe, it was - manages to pick up a bit of local gossip.
Seems there's this preacher. Name of Jesus. The one who says he's God's son. And stories are getting around that he's doing miracles.
You reckon! But some of us are all for tracking him down and giving it a go. Okay - I'm easy. Try anything once, that's my motto. And when you're a leper, you've got to keep on the move. You're not welcome, see?
Anyhow, to cut a long story short - we find this preacher. And Joe calls out to him (keeping his distance, mind) asking if he'll heal us.
And Jesus just looks at us, nods, and says: "Sure. Off you go. Get your clearance from the local priest." (The priests do a stint as health inspectors round here, you know.)
Well, we're all a bit disappointed. I mean, he doesn't seem to do anything, does he. And we turn about and amble off. But then, after a while, Joe gets to scratching himself and unwinding bandages like he's being bitten or something.
And the next minute we're all doing it. Because, well - we're okay. We're not lepers anymore. And off we charge, hell-for-leather, to get to that priest.
All except Joe, that is. He calls out something about going back to say thanks. We just ignore him. That clearance is more important. First things first, I always say.
Besides, we don't owe the preacher anything.
The kid sat open-mouthed.
He was on the edge of his seat, legs swinging.
Clutched in his hand was a forgotten bag of popcorn. All his attention was directed at the screen.
It was his first Josh McMann film.
He'd seen other films. Hundreds, maybe. But this was - fantastic!
The kid was the last to leave the cinema when the film ended. He stumbled into the muted plush foyer and began to eat this popcorn.
The manager noticed him.
The kid started, jolted out of his dream.
"Like the film, son?"
Soundlessly he nodded. There were no words in his vocabulary to answer that question.
The manager was still talking to him.
"What d'you do on Thursdays, after school, son?"
"Aw - nothing special. Muck about, mostly. Until tea's ready. Why?"
"That was a Josh McMann film, that. Quite a few kids like you reckon he's the greatest. So we've organised a bit of a fan club. There's badges, posters and stuff. We show some of his old films. Like to come?"
Thursday was a lifetime away. But somehow the kid lived the intervening days in a fidget of excitement.
And the Josh McMann club opened its doors and he was swept inside with a hundred or more other shouting, jostling children...
...to sing, and play games, and watch the old Josh McMann films, and spend every last cent of his pocket money on the fan magazines, posters for his bedroom, badges for his shirt, and the unending copies of the-books-of-the-films...
The kid never tired of the fan club. His mates at school sometimes made fun of his enthusiasm. But not often, for he could be quick with his fists. And, anyway, several of them had been bullied or badgered into going to one of Josh McMann's latest films, and admitted at school the next day that it was the best they'd ever seen.
Perhaps it wasn't quite accurate to say that the kid never tired of the fan club. He grew up, and his interests changed, matured. And when he left school and began university it just never seemed convenient to go to the club. Oh, there was nothing wrong with the Josh McMann films. Just that the club was, well - a bit chi
And the badges and posters and autographed photos and books were put away - carefully enough - in a drawer somewhere.
But the kid - a man, now - couldn't forget the way the films had grabbed him. And it was with almost a feeling of relief that he picked up a casual remark made by one of the students as they were walking from the last morning lecture to the university canteen.
"Er - say - did I hear you mention McMann? You like his films?"
"Yes. Don't tell me you do, too?"
They had talked, non-stop, throughout lunch. And he had discovered that there were quite a number of adults who shared his enthusiasm. She invited him to the club where they met.
He was a bit reluctant.
"I've rather outgrown that sort of thing;" he apologised. "Games and badges don't really grab me any more."
She laughed at his serious expression.
"Oh, good heavens, no! We're not a teeny-boppers fan club. Of course you've outgrown that. Come along tonight. You'll see."
And he did see.
The Josh McMann Society was perfectly suited to his maturing intellect. He was welcomed by the members and shown the complete video library of the McMann films. A speaker lectured on the underlying meaning in some of the early films, and there was a vigorous debate afterwards.
He had found his niche. The society - a fan club for adults, he happily admitted to himself - gave him something to get his teeth into. No rowdy kids to spoil things. Here all the members took Josh McMann seriously. Really seriously. Even memorising great slabs of dialogue and ready to correct any speaker who failed to quote accurately.
There was so much to learn. It was worth playing those videos over and over again to pick up some of the subtle nuances, the throw-away lines or the half concealed gestures.
He graduated from university. Settled into a career. And took an ever-increasing part in the Josh McMann Society. Organising some of the events. Lecturing, occasionally, as some piece of social comment or symbolism in one of the films provided material for him.
And always he was on the lookout for potential members for the society.
One of his firm's regular customers seemed promising. Something had been said - half joking - about Hollywood.
And he'd picked up the remark and said to the customer, "Funny you should say that. There's films and films, of course. But I'm a Josh McMann fan, myself. D'you know that guy writes his own scripts. Directs his own films. Even does every one of his own stunts. In fact I've been a member of the Josh McMann Society for some years now. I'm hoping one day I'll get to go over to Hollywood and perhaps get to see one of those movies actually being made. It'd be fantastic to see McMann there, on the set."
The customer had agreed, so he'd felt he could take the conversation one step further.
"Look - if you're interested, how would you like to come along to one of our society meetings? There's always something worth learning about McMann."
"Thanks, but - no," said the customer. "Don't get me wrong. It all sounds interesting enough. But the fact is, well, I don't want to boast or anything, but Josh just happens to be a friend of mine. Neighbour, actually. A lot of these stars can't stand Hollywood. Once the film's made they're off to some backblocks retreat where they can be themselves, get to know folk. Josh and me, we've known each other for donkey's years. I even get to see some of the scripts before they're shot."
The customer smiled and shook his head.
"So, I reckon you'll understand. It'd be a bit of waste of time for me, going along to a fan club and that."
Batty as a hen-coop, he is.
When he's not ham-ham-hammering on that dam'-fool building, he's down town. Yelling with all the force of his leather lungs.
What's he say? Who listens! Aw, well, something about God wiping us all out and making a new start. Like to see that happen, I would.
That's the trouble with him. No, the bloke, I mean. He gets these voices, see. Says he's been told every detail of that dirty great building of his.
I was out to see it, a while back. Thought he'd be in town. But he gets back early or something and catches me poking around.
No. Funny, that. Doesn't fly off the handle nor nothin'. Asks me if I'd like to look inside. Well, I'm none too sure. Not scared, mind. Just careful. But, well, in I go.
He's made a beaut job of it. Some blokes know how to use timber, don't they! All the joints just so. Wish I could.
And he shows me the plans. Now, I've seen plans before. But these are pretty tricky. Know what I mean?
He's bloomin' proud of them. See that, he says. Every line, every measurement. God told me.
I say something like pull the other one, it's got bells on it. But he doesn't get all upset of anything. Just says I can believe anything I want, and leaves it at that.
Then I ask him what the building's for. He says God says everyone's going to get killed. The world's going to be sort of wiped clean. So him and his family'll stay inside until it's all over.
I've got him there. I know I have. So I take him outside.
Got something to show you, I say. Then you can have another think about those instructions your God gives you.
He just smiles a bit and follows me out.
Look, I say. Timber. Walls, floor, roof, the lot. All timber. Okay, it's treated. And you've framed and clad it good and tight.
But if there's going to be all the disasters you go on about, you should've used stone. Stone'll last. This won't.
He doesn't say anything. So I play the ace. Like I say - I've been poking around before he arrives.
Look at this here, I say. The both of us get down on our hands and knees and have a nosey under the building. It's up on blocks, which is fair enough.
How come your God forgets to tell you to wire the joists to the blocks? I mean, it's a pretty elementary thing, that. You've just got it sitting there. One of your perishing disasters and the whole thing could just shift.
He doesn't answer. Well, he can't, can he. I've got him there. He just says he'll walk me back to the main road. The track through the bush isn't always safe of an evening for visitors. Because of the animals.
Weird, that. I hadn't spotted it earlier. But the place is like a flaming menagerie. As we walk, there's all these shapes ducking around behind the trees. Keeping their distance - because of him, like as not, - but there's enough snorts and roars to get me worried.
What's the big idea, I ask. They're going in the building, he says. So's they don't get wiped out.
And...I dunno why I ask this. Wish I hadn't now. But I say - two of each, eh? And he goes a bit quiet. So I ask him again.
Yes. Two of some. But a whole lot more of certain types. And he stops and looks me straight in the eye. Like he's angry or something.
It'll be a bit of a time before we can start growing crops again, he says. After the disaster's over. We'll be low on food. There's a limit on how much we can store in the building.
Go on, I say. What're you trying to tell me.
He swallows a bit before he answers. Then... We're going to have to eat some of those animals to keep alive. There'll be no choice. We'll have to.
I don't remember how I answer the bloke. Nothing polite that's for sure. An' I get the hell out of there quick as I can.
That's religion for you. Voices from God. Preaching about how bad we all are. Judgement and all that.
And all the time he's planning to get those animals into that building of his and...and eat them when he comes out.
The man's a pervert, that's what he is. I mean, who ever heard of anyone eating animals?