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“Dear God, how did it come to this?” James cradled his face in his hands. The meeting had been a disaster and the future of his ministry had been tabled to yet another meeting, time and date to be announced. The uncertainty was killing him. It would have been easier if they had just lowered the boom tonight. James felt as though some of the elders might be relishing in his agony, prolonging it would make the kill that much sweeter. What’s the fun in destroying someone unless you can make them suffer a little first.
He looked up at the cross, prominently displayed above the pulpit. The sanctuary was quiet now. Everyone had gone home to re-enter their real lives. James was alone with what he thought had been his real life. In the beginning it seemed it would be a perfect match. Ministering to a mature congregation in the town he had attended college was his dream job. The familiarity of Spokane was so inviting, he had fond memories of college, a time when James was on fire for the Lord. Perhaps all these enticements had been misread as God’s will and were nothing more than temptations he had succumbed to. No. This was a trial and God would see him through it.
“Lord, help me, give me strength to honor you through this.” James prayed silently with his eyes fixed on the cross. He hoped for an audible voice to tell him where to go from here. In the Old Testament days, God revealed Himself in signs and wonders, but in James’ life he had remained silent. There were a few occasions when he would feel a tugging in one direction or another, and he had done his best to follow these impulses, to use his knowledge of God’s likes and dislikes to try to please Him. Was it all just an illusion?
“Speak to me now Lord, if ever I needed to hear from you it is now.” James’ head dropped back into his hands. The expanse of the sanctuary remained quiet. Through his fingers he observed the well worn carpet, mint green, the color choice of a dying generation of believers that refused to relinquish control to a younger group.
“So this is how it’s going to be.” The silence now brought uneasiness to his soul. He stood up and walked to the back of the large empty room. Before leaving the sanctuary he paused, turned, and took one more look at the cross.
“Why the silence Lord?”
James’ hand fumbled against the wall in an attempt to turn off the lights. He felt the familiar hard plastic light switch cover. The instant his finger touched the switch a brilliant white flash went off in his head. It was as if someone had shoved a camera in his face and the flash bulb had gone off. He was temporarily blinded. Struggling to keep his balance he closed his eyes. A series of sparks swirled around inside his eyelids revealing an image. Not a clear image, it was like a blurry negative on an old piece of film. It looked like some sort of bench, with a back rest. The back rest was imprinted with some words and a picture. Next to it was a street sign. He was unable to make out any detail because the sparks kept popping in and out, creating a silhouette effect. When he opened his eyes, the bench and street sign began spinning, eventually disappearing from view. James realized he was on the floor, flat on his back.
“What on earth just happened?” Dazed and confused, he sat up. The church wiring was old, he decided there must be a short circuit. Aside from being a little dizzy, everything else felt normal. Picking himself up off the floor, he made his way out to the parking lot, avoiding all of the light switches along the way. One of the old timers would undoubtedly drive by and see that the church lights were left on, but what was the worst that could happen? He was already going to be fired.
The ride home was uneventful. He entered his apartment and checked his message machine, three messages. James didn’t have the energy to listen to them. He threw his keys on the counter, made an unfruitful investigation of the fridge, and then started his routine of preparing for bed. It occurred to him, while brushing his teeth, that his two failed attempts at purchasing a house were now going to be a blessing. The move, to who knows where, would be easier. There was still a chance that he might be able to stay, but the tide seemed to be turning against him. Energy focused on staying in Spokane seemed futile.
Sleep did not come quickly. The glowing red numbers on his clock radio began to annoy him, as if they were calling out, “Hey, it’s 3:23, you should have been asleep hours ago.” He propped his pillow up to shield his eyes from the mocking red light. The glowing seemed to seep through his pillow. He reached over to the night stand to turn the clock radio away from his view.
The flash went off again.
Brilliant white light, sparks dancing around the room. The bench and the street sign reappeared, spinning erratically, back and forth, right and left. It was clearer this time. The letters S-p-r-a were visible on the street sign. The picture and words on the bench weren’t as clear, but there was something familiar about it. It reminded him of an advertisement he’d seen before, something about children or school. The more he tried to focus in on the objects, the more elusive they became until they were gone altogether. James was momentarily unable to move.
“God, what is happening to me?”
After a few moments passed, he was able to move his arm. Gradually his body returned to normal. He sat up in his bed perplexed not so much by the brilliant flash or temporary paralysis, but why the image of the bench and the street sign? It was odd. A bus stop? That must be it. Sprague, the letters on the sign must represent the name Sprague. It was a major street in Spokane, and he knew it was part of the bus route. He put his head back down on his pillow and tried to go to sleep, but his mind would have nothing to do with it. The glowing red numbers still said 3:23
James didn’t remember getting dressed or even leaving his apartment, but there he was driving up Sprague Avenue looking for bus stop benches. “This is completely nuts,” he said to himself as he saw a bench several blocks up. Stopping for a red light, he strained his eyes to see if there was an image on the back rest, but it was still out of view. What if that was the bench? What was he supposed to do?
“Speak to me Lord, I need some guidance here,” . . . silence.
The light changed to green and as he neared the bench he saw the familiar advertisement for the D.A.R.E. program, an anti-drug campaign. That was it. He recognized it, but there could be a dozen benches in Spokane with the same add. Still, he felt compelled to do something, but what? Go sit on it? What else do you do with a bench?
James felt a bit awkward as he sat down on the bench, as late as it was, he wasn’t sure if the buses were even running. At the same time, he felt like he was in the right place. From the corner of his eye he detected some movement, a vagrant coming toward him on a bicycle. James felt uneasy as he realized he had two twenty dollar bills in his wallet. Under normal circumstances, when James went downtown, he carried small bills just for this sort of occasion. What if this guy asked for a dollar? It certainly wouldn’t be appropriate to ask him to give change for a twenty. He decided to look at the ground and avoid eye contact. It did not come as a shock when the vagrant pulled his bike up alongside the bench and sat down next to James.
“Are you a man of God?” the man said brushing a lock of greasy unwashed hair out of his eyes. James was momentarily speechless. This was not a question he was expecting. Could this be part of God’s plan? He decided to play along.
“Yes I am,” he replied.
“I thought so. My name is R. J. Hicks, I’m a man of God as well. I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, you are?”
“James Dillon, I’m a pastor at North Mills Church up on the north end of town.”
“So what seems to be the problem, pastor?”
This question came as even more of a surprise. “What makes you think there is a problem?” James asked.
“God wouldn’t have sent me if there wasn’t a problem.”
“So you’re a messenger from God,” James said with a sarcastic tone in his voice. He regretted it as soon as it came out.
“Actually I’m a homeless guy with a bicycle, but on occasions, the Lord speaks to me and I go where he directs me. I suppose you just happen to be sitting here in the middle of the night by accident?” R.J. responded with an equally sarcastic tone.
“I thought so,” said R.J. “How are things going at your church?”
It was unusual for James to speak about his personal matters to a complete stranger, but this was an unusual circumstance. James told him about the meeting where the elders were debating whether or not to terminate their relationship with him. He explained how some of the old guard people did not agree with his priorities when it came to courting young families and creating a contemporary worship service, even though some of these old folks had been on the search committee that had brought him to North Mills.
“I feel betrayed, I don’t know who I can trust. I still can’t believe they hired me, then refuse to let me do the job they hired me to do.”
“What was the job they hired you to do?”
“They wanted a pastor that would help revitalize their dying congregation. Most of the members are well into their sixties and they were afraid that the church was going to disappear if they didn’t get some younger people in there.” James could not believe he was spilling his guts to a homeless stranger.
“They wanted a pastor,” said R.J.
“Yes, but they wanted one that . . .”
“They wanted a pastor,” R.J. said as he flipped up the collar of his olive drab jacket, the same jacket that James was convinced had been worn by almost every homeless guy he had ever seen. “They wanted to be loved and pastored, never mind what they thought they wanted.”
“Well, I did my best to love and pastor them. I’m not sure why it happened, at first they supported me and the new programs I wanted to implement. Then one by one they started to turn against me. It was just a couple of them at first, but gradually they grew in number, it was like they were plotting against me, hoping I would fail.”
“Your church is possessed by some unholy spirits” R.J. said with a tone of concern in his voice. Here it comes, James thought to himself, the guy is a nut. I’m sitting here at four in the morning talking to a nut.
“Unholy spirits produce fruit just like the Holy Spirit does. What I’m hearing is that there is a spirit of rebellion, of fear and of pride.”
“So you think my Church is full of demons? Although there have been some times I have considered it, I would never have said it out loud,” the sarcastic tone had returned to James voice.
“Not demons, unholy spirits. Demons tend to possess one person at a time. Unholy spirits tend to infect a group, like your church. I know it sounds a little strange, but I see this all the time. For some reason God has given me the ability to recognize this condition.” R.J. paused. James leaned back against the bench to process this concept for a moment.
“So what do I need to do, have you come to the church and perform an exorcism?”
“No, the thing you need to do is recognize these spirits for what they are and let the Holy Spirit take their place. For example, when you attend one of your meetings I would expect that you are there to do business.”
“Of course,” James responded slightly puzzled, but his interest was growing.
“You should be there to worship, your worship may take the form of a meeting, but it is worship none the less. These people need a pastor not a business manager. They’re afraid of change, so they rebel against it, and you’re all too proud to step back and consider the other’s position. You need to recognize this condition and try to present it to the others in the spirit of love and patience, not in the spirit of business and efficiency.”
James was astonished, this guy was actually making sense. “It seems awfully simple, do you really think it will work? I’ve tried to be patient and loving and it hasn’t proven to be very effective so far.”
“You have never surrendered to the Spirit. That’s why you have had such a difficult time hearing God’s voice. That’s why we’re here. Anyway, take heart, it’s not too late.” R.J. looked at the clock at the bank across the street, “4:15 am, I need to get going. I’ve got another appointment.”
James wasn’t expecting the conversation to come to a close so quickly, he offered R.J. a ride. He was hoping they might be able to continue their talk in the car. “It really would be no trouble, where is your appointment?”
“I don’t know yet,” with that he stood up and mounted his bicycle, “Don’t ever underestimate the Holy Spirit.”
James watched as R.J. pedaled off. He almost expected him to vanish in a blaze of light, but ultimately it was a right turn that made him disappear from view. James sat alone, quietly processing. Nothing had changed, he still had to face the elders, he might lose his job, but he had a sense of peace that he hadn’t felt for a long time. He noticed the cool night air had made his knees stiff when he finally stood. Walking to his car he paused and chuckled to himself, “Why the silence Lord?”
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I love the character of R.J. You know it's really good. I wish I could give you something to help, but I can't see anything remotely wrong with it. :D
No wonder why this was a finalist! It rocks! I enjoyed it. Especially the part where he expects RJ to disappear in a flash of light but he only makes a right turn. VERY well written, congrats Brad!
Brad! This was an excellent piece. It has a lot of meaning to me because something like this happened at our church. Only, the ending wasn't so good for us. Our pastor kept going in that direction and wound-up hurting a lot of people. It was refreshing to see the way this one turned-out. Who thinks about a homeless guy having any kind of sage advice anyway? I too liked the way he thought the man would make a lightning exit. The only thing that concerned me is the statement about everyone going home to their "real" life. It isn't a big deal, but it happens to be something I am keenly aware of right now. I hear a lot of people speak about going home to the "real" world. I believe that church and God's work is the real world. But, I don't believe you were trying to convey that it wasn't. Just know that it popped inot my head. I loved this work.