Angelica’s throat tightened and her pulse raced as Brother Headley begged the kids to repent and follow Christ. What if her mom knew that this summer camp was run by fanatical “holy rollers”? It seemed strange enough to mom that the kids hadn’t been allowed to wear shorts here. But this camp was so cheap and money was so scarce at Angelica’s house that her mom had grudgingly allowed her to accompany her girl friend to the week of hiking, basket-weaving and intense, Bible-centered preaching offered by Joyful Noise Christian Kids’ Camp.
Brother Headley usually gave long, emotional altar calls, the kind that kept you perched over the precipice of hell, about to slip off the cliff of mercy and drop into the leaping flames of eternal judgment. But the services were exciting and the preacher kept you on the edge of your seat, though sometimes he did scare you. How different from the stiff, watered-down formal services her mom dragged her to a couple times a year, and even that seemed way too often to an eight-year old girl with a short attention span.
“This could be your FINAL chance to find Christ!” the preacher warned. “A lot of you girls will put on makeup when you go home from this hallowed place. You’ll wear shorts and immodest teenage clothing which sets boys on fire with lust. You boys will play violent video games. When you get a bit older you’ll stray so far from Christ you’ll cave in to peer pressure at school. Won’t be long you’ll get drunk with your buddies on Saturday night. You’ll chase girls and get them in trouble. But by then it will be too late. You’ll be a dad at sixteen or seventeen, no way to escape the crushing responsibility of teenage parenthood. So heavy-laden with care you run away and turn to a life of crime. You’ll end up on drugs to escape a reality you can’t deal with. You may even end up in prison, broken and ruined.
Don’t let satan trap you into fulfilling his plan for your life, young person out there. I know the allure of money and pleasure, the lust for things of this world and how it can crowd out any desire to follow Jesus.” Brother Headley made a barely open circle with his thumb and forefinger. “I should know, because I came THIS close to rejecting Jesus forever until I ended up in a hospital bed after a car crash that almost sent me to hell. I could see the flames of hell leaping at me through a dark tunnel. I could hear the screams of hopeless, lost souls in the distance. I could even smell the smoke and feel the heat of hell. But I cried out unto JESUS! My merciful Jesus saved me off that death bed and called me to preach the Gospel.
“Kids say Christ isn’t cool, that He’ll ruin your life and you’ll lose all your buddies if you follow Him. But where will those false friends be when you must stand before Almighty God and answer to Him for rejecting His free offer of salvation, which cost the death of His only Son?
“Oh, precious young person, DIE to the ugly things of this world and come alive in Christ! Even if you were to become the richest person on this planet someday, money can’t buy your way into heaven. In Luke 14:33 Jesus says: Whosoever forsaketh not ALL that he has cannot be My disciple. Children, you must be willing to give up EVERYTHING to follow Christ. He may even call some of you to be foreign missionaries and travel to some distant land to tell people about His great redeeming love for them, and warn them of the horrors of hell which await unrepentant sinners after death. Oh, I know the devil will convince a lot of you that making MONEY is the most important thing, and your motto should be: ‘He who dies with the most toys wins’. Don’t be so stupid. You still die in the end and you can’t take one red cent with you when you go. If you want a mansion in heaven and everlasting joy in the Presence of the Lord Jesus Christ, you’ll be willing to DIE to this rotten old world and live only unto Him.
“Jesus asks YOU in Mark 8:36: What will you gain if you end up owning this whole planet and end up losing your own soul? And in Luke 9:25: What good will it do you if you win the whole world and lose YOURSELF or be cast away? As much as it hurts to have other kids reject you at school, I guarantee you, young folks, there’s nothing more terrifying than to have God throw you away after living a wasted life without Christ.
“Deny yourself, young person, live only for Christ. He promises you riches in heaven if only you’ll forsake all, take up your cross and follow Him. But you must go the way of the cross, the way of self-denial and yieldedness to Jesus if you would enter into life eternal. Julie, please softly play ‘Where He Leads Me I Will Follow.’ This is our FINAL service this summer at Joyful Noise Camp, and it could be your very LAST opportunity to accept Christ as Savior. With every head bowed and every eye closed, I beseech you to come and kneel at the foot of the Cross.”
Slowly, legs trembling, Angelica got up and rushed forward before she could change her mind. Her knees bucked, then she slipped into the sawdust shavings to call upon Christ for salvation.
“God bless you,” the preacher said, lightly touching Angelica’s head. “Sister Margaret here, she’ll pray with you.”
After a very emotional time of repentance by sinners and backsliders, Brother Headley said, “I feel led to extend this invitation to ask if any of you feel called by God to the mission field. Now be honest with the Lord. Some of you are called to be faithful in your own communities and when you grow up, to be a good witness for Christ in the jobs you’ll someday have. But others of you are chosen by God to go forth into foreign lands to preach the Gospel and pray for the sick. It may mean hardship and privations, where you no longer enjoy the comforts of home and even food is scarce. But that same God who feeds the sparrows will surely provide for you wherever you may go. One missionary I know, Brother Ventura, had to walk twenty miles one day to find spare parts for his car. He slept on a straw mat and lived on beans and rice until extra supplies arrived. Brother Ventura counted it all joy to endure a little hardship for Christ. Sometimes he got sick because the water had germs in it. But wherever he went souls were saved, people got blessed and the Lord moved in power. Brother Ventura died last summer and I know he’s happy where he is, praising God in a land where there is no sorrow, death or mourning. Brother Ventura couldn’t take his problems with him to heaven but neither can you take your money there after you die. Only one life, will soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last. Only what you do out of love for Jesus will be taken with you to heaven. How many of you feel God leading you to be a missionary to lost souls in some foreign land? Just raise your hand. If you’re still seated, come up front and I’ll pray for you.”
Angelica, tears trickling down her face, stood with the others to receive their pastor’s prayer of blessing. She promised that she WOULD take her beloved Savior any place He sent her to save as many as possible from the fires of hell. No suffering was too great, no price too high to pay to fulfill such a noble calling.
“Angelica, remind me to fire that yoyo when we get back from this trip!” Brother Gantry Goldrich grumbled as they hunched over the ticket counter of Eaglebeak Airlines.
Angelica tossed her blond mane. “WE shouldn’t even be the ones taking care of this. But our aides are so stupid we can’t trust them to get a simple airline reservation right.”
“It was quite unexpected, ma’am,” the ticket agent said. “We do apologize for any inconvenience, but the Shah of Shazaam MUST meet with the Department of Energy in Washington D.C. on a very unexpected, urgent crisis.”
“Well, what’s more urgent than OUR personal comfort?” Angelica said, turning up her nose and wagging her jeweled finger in the harried man’s face. “We’ve got an important crusade to get to, and dinner reservations are at eight tonight. Aren’t there any other flights going to Washington D.C. today?”
The ticket agent checked his computer. “Well, we could divert you through St. Paul and Cincinnati but it’d take an extra three hours.”
“Can’t the Shah of Shazaam sacrifice just TWO first-class seats for us, and our staff can just fly coach?” Angelica demanded.
“Ma’am, that’s out of the question. The Shah’s entire clan is flying to Washington D.C. with him, along with a vast retinue of servants. It would make him lose face and reflect badly on his hospitality if he were forced to downgrade the flying status of any member of his party.”
Angelica said, through gritted teeth: “Well, then, at least you could let us fly business class! JUST THIS ONCE I suppose I COULD sacrifice the complimentary caviar and cocktail buffet.”
Gantry rolled up his eyes. “Chill out, Angelica. I’ll PAY for your cocktails and caviar. I believe I’m rich enough to keep you up in style. The trip’s only five hours long.”
The ticket agent shook his head. “What’s the matter NOW!” Angelica snapped, as the line of waiting passengers lengthened behind them, buzzing angrily.
“Sorry, ma’am, business class is full too. All previously booked business class passengers were also downgraded to coach because of this international crisis. There ARE no seats available except the two already reserved for you in coach.”
“WHAT!” Angelica looked so mad Gantry had to hold her back. “For pity’s sake! The Shah of Shazaam is taking up ALL the first class seats, and now you tell me Business Class is full too! Who on earth is taking up those seats?”
“The Shah’s four wives and all his inlaws, including their household servants.”
Angelica really looked sore. “So you expect US, Gantry Goldrich Ministries, to be crammed in coach, while the Shah’s toilet cleaner is getting wined and dined in Business Class?”
“Ma’am, I have no control over the chaos caused by this unforeseen contingency. Our job is to transport the Shah to Washington D.C. in comfort. All I do is follow orders.”
“That’s the same excuse the Nazis made! Angelica barked. She pointed at Gantry. “My husband and I, we’re children of the Great King! God doesn’t want His ambassadors sweltering in some smelly coach seat! Who knows what weirdos will be sitting next to us!” She was getting hysterical. Behind them was a growing chorus of indignant voices yelling they were in a hurry to catch the plane.
“Shhh,” Gary said, nudging her arm. “It’ll be all right, sugar. Let’s just check in. They’re already calling the flight, and we’re keeping this long line waiting.”
“I’m sorry ma’am,” the ticket agent said. “But there are other passengers less fortunate than yourself. Our original coach passengers, most of them got bumped off this flight completely and either had to get refunds or get booked on a later flight.”
“Big deal, that’s THEIR problem!” Angelica hoisted her noise, picked up their boarding passes and flounced away, pulling her husband along.
Angelica was so mad it made her cry. Just think, their personal assistants had seats in the front of the cabin while they were stuck in the back by the restrooms. Angelica was skinny. But she was so tall her legs would get cramps from being packed into such a tiny space. Gantry struggled to hoist her tote bags into the overhead compartments. That was the most exercise he’d gotten since going into ministry.
Gantry and Angelica wriggled into their seats in the center row of the rear. Sitting next to Angelica’s assigned seat (and overlapping into half of it) was a bearded hillbilly who cackled to his wife about their luck in not getting bumped off the plane. “I better get up a minute, Tonya, before this plane takes off,” he said. The man drew a deep breath, clutched the back of the seat in front, and struggled to his feet, clutching a paper cup of Coke between his teeth.
A sudden sneeze and SPLAT! All over Angelica’s seat went the Coke and lots of tiny ice cubes. Angelica checked her boarding pass twice to make sure this sloppy seat really WAS hers. The heavyset hillbilly struggled to get everything cleaned up and profusely apologized while Gantry called a busy stewardess over.
Before long a pair of busy hands was scrubbing the seat with a spray cleaner. Angelica glared at the girl. “What’s THIS you’re using!” she yelled.
“Spray & Scrub, ma’am.”
“Are you crazy or something?” Angelica demanded. “I allow only NATURAL cleansers in our homes, and our maids know it. I’ve got sensitive skin and if funny chemicals come into contact with me I suffer an allergic reaction.”
“Cool it, Angelica,” Gantry said. He paid the hillbillies two grand to swap seats with them. He offered to sit next to the fat guy to give Angelica more room.
One crisis solved, at least for the moment.
“I just can’t wait to see what smoke and mirror miracle tricks our ministry team comes up with this time,” Angelica whispered to Gantry. “Hope they hired trained actors to play sick in the crusade and rented enough empty wheel chairs. If they pull things off right, those ice cream buckets will overflow at offering time.”
“Yeah, I’m sure they will,” Gantry mumbled, dreading the journey.
On Angelica’s other side she got a surprise, a woman carrying a baby. The woman sat in one seat and the baby’s carrier was belted in next to Angelica. Once they reached cruising altitude the child woke up, screaming for its bottle. Angelica whined about needing pills for her headache. The stewardess warmed a plastic bottle for the infant and handed it to the mother. When she tested the milk temperature on her wrist she squeezed the bottle too hard, squirting some on Angelica.
“Sorry, ma’am, uh…sorry if I’m wrong, but you look an awful lot like Angelica Goldrich, and the man next to you looks like Gantry Goldrich.”
“That’s right, we ARE the Goldriches,” Angelica said stiffly, dabbing at her blouse and glaring at the woman.
The woman said awkwardly, “I do hope you got the offering I sent last month…AND my prayer request.”
Angelica sniffed and shrugged. “I suppose we must have received yours, there’s so many on our mailing list, it’s hard to keep track of each.”
The woman looked a bit hurt at the icy rebuff but persisted. “Brother Gantry, my name is Mary Smith. Did you receive my prayer request last month?”
“Sure did. Done and dusted. Your answer’s on the way.”
“Can you remember what I prayed for?”
“Sister Mary, all that matters is GOD remembers it, and He’ll always bless you abundantly as you sow into Goldrich Ministries. Your sacrificial gift makes our outreach possible.”
“Think I’ve sowed enough seed to get THIS blessing? My husband ran off last year to sow his wild oats. We got divorced and I need a new one.”
“Just don’t look at mine,” Angelica warned.
A few minutes later Sister Mary checked her baby’s diaper. She dug her changing supplies out of a bulky bag. She spread the baby out on its seat and undid its dirty diaper. Then an announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re flying into a thunderstorm. Please keep your seat belts buckled and everyone remain seated till further notice.”
BUMP! BUMP! BUMP! The used diaper slipped to the floor as Mary rushed to complete the changing job. Angelica held her nose and coughed while Gantry got the oxygen nozzle down for her. She slid her foot in something gooey and let out a squawk that would wake the dead. Gantry washed Angelica’s foot with Wet Wipes while she cried on his shoulder. When the turbulence subsided a stewardess brought her some sherry to steady her nerves. Angelica barely got a sip before the baby barfed up its bottle.
“I’m gonna SUE this rotten airline!” Angelica wailed, taking repeated drags from the oxygen nozzle.
“Please, precious, don’t cry,” Gantry begged.
“Change seats with me, Gantry…NOW!”
“But dear,” he whispered, “I’ve got bruises all over my chest from that big man taking up half my seat. Oh, goodie, it’s lunch time, there’s the stewardess right now.”
“Veggie pasta or mackerel surprise, ma’am?” the stewardess asked her.
“Can’t you bring us something from first class?” Gantry inquired. “I’ve got the cash to pay for it.”
“Sir, there ARE no spare meals on board. To minimize wastage and maximize efficiency in order to reduce operating costs and keep this airline in business, we keep an accurate count of ALL meals needed in each cabin. I’m afraid you’re stuck with the same food as the rest of our economy passengers.”
Angelica hadn’t eaten that day so she grudgingly ordered the veggie pasta. After taking one bite she scrunched up her nose and called for the stewardess.”
“This is the worst slop I’ve ever eaten!” Angelica whined. “Our dogs eat better than this. Where’s the chef who made this mess?”
“There are no chefs on board, ma’am. We serve pre-made meals.”
“I’m too sick to eat anyway,” Angelica moaned. “If this woman had any consideration, she would have left her kid at home with its nanny.”
Sister Mary was mad. “I AM this child’s nanny, and it’s not an “it”. My son’s name is James. I’m this baby’s mother, father, cleaner, doctor and breadwinner. This trip is the FIRST time in ages James and I have had any time together. The rest of the time James stays with a baby-sitter while I work all sorts of crazy hours, and I NEVER get to see him except when I get home and he’s already sound asleep. I went on this trip so I could see my parents and James could meet his grandparents for the very first time. But I guess you two know NOTHING about having to work a dead-end waitress job and never getting to see your own children! You’re not real people because you don’t have to live in the real world! You’re PRETEND people who serve your own rich Jesus who wore a Rolex and drove a Cadillac donkey. If the REAL Jesus came on board this plane you’d turn up your nose when you saw Him!”
Angelica looked mortified that anyone would dare rebuke HER, the darling of Prey-4-U TV Network and queen of Goldrich Ministries. The hillbilly next to Gantry hee-hawed and jabbed the preacher in the ribs as he slapped his knee. Everyone in the cabin who heard Mary tell Angelica off cheered.
“How DARE you!” Angelica cried. “Gantry, aren’t you going to stand up for me?” She burst into tears.
“I’ve had all I can take of this,” Gantry sputtered. “You’ll GET your first class seat if it KILLS me!” He got up and started to climb the stairs up to First Class. A stewardess informed him that coach passengers were NOT permitted access to that section except in an emergency. She told Gantry the fate of other passengers who tried to sneak into First Class with an economy ticket. Dejected, Gantry stumbled back to his own seat.
“I tried to go up to first class so I could pay a couple of people to swap seats with us,” Gantry told Angelica. “The stewardess said no one’s allowed up there except in an emergency.”
“For crying out loud!” Angelica cried. “Are you so dumb you don’t know this IS an emergency? I’ve got money too! Here, I’LL go!”
Angelica shoved her way down the crammed aisle. She nearly knocked over a beverage cart as she stormed back to the stairway. Once again the stewardess said nobody could go up there.
“Out of my way, sister!” Angelica seethed. “What I want, I get!”
“Ma’am, return to your seat or I’ll page security.”
Angelica opened her pocketbook. “Maybe THIS will keep you quiet!” She handed the woman a thousand-dollar bill.
The stewardess pocketed the cash and whispered, “Just make it quick and hurry back.”
There he was, the big cheese himself, the Shah of Shazaam, reclining in the very first row in the vast, velvety softness of First Class, sipping tea and being waited on hand and foot.
“Hello, Your Majesty,” Angelica said. “Comprende English?”
“I comprehend English quite well,” the foreign dignitary said. “Who are you? I am not accustomed to being approached by an unfamiliar woman.”
“My husband and I are famous TV evangelists. Gantry and Angelica Goldrich. I’m not feeling too well, and it would be better if I flew First Class. I was wondering if we could pay two of your people to switch seats with me and my husband. We’d pay about two grand for each seat.”
The Shah got a twinkle in his eyes. “That’s peanuts to us, and they don’t serve peanuts on planes anymore.”
“But Gantry and I are millionaires…”
“But I am a multi-billionaire, almost a trillionaire!” the Shah bragged. “You sell religion, I sell OIL, so which is more profitable?”
“But Your Majesty, I really do need to fly first class, or at least business class. Aren’t you people famous for showing hospitality?”
He winked. “It isn’t customary for us to socialize with unrelated women where I come from, but I could make an exception in your case. I booked two seats just for myself. I’ll share half my seating space with you if you wish, and it won’t cost you anything. Just don’t tell my wives. I really do like your golden hair.” Playfully he touched it.
She recoiled, mouth agape. “Nothing personal,” he said. “Forgive me if I’ve offended you.”
“Not at all. What’s it like where you live?”
“Always warm and balmy, full of fascinating characters and always very exciting. You’d love it, and you’d find many like-minded people there. Would you care to join me for tea and a nice chat? Any variety of your choice.”
“Actually, Your Majesty, I could use a stiffer drink. Maybe a brandy.”
He frowned. “Our religion forbids alcoholic beverages of any kind. I do apologize.”
“You’ve got your principles then,” she said warmly. “Nothing wrong with old-time religion.”
This man, though much older-looking than herself, was SO charming, with his colorful costume and air of mystery. Such a cultured voice, unlike the gripes and grumbles of crowded coach. He smelt of sweet frankincense, worlds removed from the stale odor of crowded bodies down below. His shadowy, piercing brown eyes captivated her. This gentleman was as alluring as a shimmering desert mirage.
“We may not drink, but our religion does allow us a great measure of pleasure,” he said. “My country is a billionaire’s paradise.”
“We’re only millionaires,” she sighed as she sipped Raspberry Romance tea. “I’m so sick and tired of being poor.”
“Don’t sell yourself short,” the Shah said. Now you can either return to your dreary coach life with your husband or you can stay up here with me and I’ll take you away to a life of luxury and splendor you never knew before. I’m prepared to pay millions to buy you from your husband. Which do you choose?”
“Gantry doesn’t own me,” Angelica said. “And I know you’re only kidding about buying me. Gantry thinks he’s the reason we’ve made a success of our ministry, but if it hadn’t been for me pushing him all these years we’d be pasturing some poor, hole-in-the-wall church out in the sticks somewhere.”
“Behind every successful man is an even more determined woman,” the Shah said. “But if you went home with me you’d never again have to beg money from the poor or sell religion to anyone.”
“I can’t go back down there, that’s for sure,” Angelica said. “I was badly humiliated in front of all those people. But I don’t intend to cheat on Gantry, ever. Couldn’t you find him a seat too?”
“Certainly. One of my lesser servants can take his place in coach, though that IS a hard thing to demand of a faithful member of my own household. I’ll send my bus boy to exchange places with Gantry, if that would please you.”
He’s such a flirt, the way he looks at me,, Angelica thought. Wonder why it doesn’t bother him if Gantry joins us up here?
When the servant reached Gantry he found him praying with a fellow Christian believer, repenting of his sins of greed and pride. After Gantry made peace with God and thanked his new Christian friend, the servant told him he was willing to take his place in coach if he cared to join his wife up in first class.
“No thank you,” Gantry said. “My Master taught His own servants that in order to go up higher you must first go lower and take the place of a lowly slave. I’ve already enjoyed my fair share of luxury living.”
Gantry and the other Christian witnessed to the busboy. They told him about the King’s Son who left His own Throne in heaven and took the place of sinners on the Cross to die for their sins. But the servant was so afraid of the Shah he refused to pray for salvation. Gantry said, “Remember all we told you, Zimri, and don’t let fear enslave you. It’s getting bumpy. Better go back to your own seat now.”
Angelica couldn’t believe it when the servant said Gantry wouldn’t swap seats. She looked down the stairwell and saw Gantry standing there, pleading for her to come back down where she belonged. She called down to him: “You come up here right now, Gantry Goldrich! You spineless worm, just give the guy a grand and he’ll swap seats with you!”
“I can’t do that anymore, Angelica!” Gantry called. “I’m sick of controlling poor people with my money, and I’m sick of letting money control me! Money is no longer my lord, and now I play by the rules. JESUS is the only Lord I have now, and if He can go to the Cross I can travel three more hours in coach!”
“Well,” she shot back, if I’ve gotta go the way of the Cross, I’m gonna go first class all the way, even if you don’t come with me!”
“Angelica, you won’t win this argument, and.”
“Then STAY! I can fly first class with someone else! The very idea, that some busboy deserves better treatment than you! At least the Shah knows the value of money!”
“Money! Is that ALL you ever think about, Angelica?”
“What else has glued us together all these years, Gantry? Do you SERIOUSLY think I’d have stayed with you five minutes if you didn’t know how to squeeze money out of people dumber than you?”
Gantry grimaced. “Angelica, you can’t control me this time! If you love money more than me, OR JESUS, that’s your problem. But I’m warning you, woman, you’ll reap what you sow!”
“Well, I’m gonna go up there and sow some wild oats so I can reap some REAL diamonds!” she called.
“Please turn to Jesus and repent, Angelica! I’m begging you…” Gantry reached out toward her, but in vain.
“Shut up, you worthless wimp! Hurry back to your two-bit coach seat next to that pukey baby!”
A new thunderstorm rattled the jumbo jet. A mighty thunder bolt struck the fuselage, wiping out the electrical system and crashing the computers. The plane spun round and round before crashing in a deep river.
Angelica floated up from the murky water. “Come with me, my precious, hell awaits you,” she heard a familiar voice call.
On the river bank stood the mysterious Shah, beckoning to her.
“But I thought you were a religious guy!” Angelica cried. “You’re so religious you don’t even drink!”
“Didn’t you ever read your own Bible, Angelica?” her tempter taunted. “I’m a master of disguises and if I wanted to I could even turn myself into an angel. Swearing off booze for a day didn’t turn me into a saint. It was just part of my act. How does it FEEL, Angelica, to fall for MY phony show after all the tricks you’ve pulled to pry open people’s wallets? You always did love the finer things in life, Angelica. But how cheaply you sold yourself to me, just for a few measly millions, leaving a trail of disillusioned Christians crushed by your cruelty. Many forsook Christ because you brought such reproach upon His Name. Now we’ll go to my home where it’s ALWAYS hot and sunny and where you can retire from your “ministry” in style!
“But what about Gantry?” Angelica pleaded. “He conned Christians too.”
“Gantry got out of that game when he prayed for God’s forgiveness and made peace with Jesus,” the devil answered. “Gantry’s been upgraded to Glory but you’ll be taking my COACH TO HELL.”