In order to become a better writer, I’ve decided to take up the exercise of writing a little story. Since I usually write about theology and life intersecting, this is definitely out of my comfort zone. I’m sure I have the tenacity, mindset, or ability to see it all the way through. Still, I’d love some feed back.
John sat in the dark room. A thin beam of sunlight cut through it like a laser between the window blind’s slats. Specks of dust were randomly drifting in and out of its path with an almost magical wonder. That’s how he remembered it as child too, when things were simpler. Now, it’s just a reminder that this small apartment could probably use a good cleaning, not that it’s going to happen anytime soon. If he was honest with himself, he’d say he spends way too much time distracted by those floating dust specks, but that’s likely because he simply has too much idle time on his hands. The last few years have been nothing but a mundane repetition of same old, same old. Work, home, sleep, rinse and repeat. Toss in just enough activities like eating and nominal exercise to keep his body alive, sprinkle with a few books and TV, and you have just enough distraction to get you from one day to the next.
He wouldn’t have it any other way.
He’s done enough damage with his poor choices over the years that this daily ennui, is more than enough existence for him right now. It’s just easier. It’s safer than engaging the world. No, he’s not afraid of being out there. He’s afraid of being someone else’s hurt and pain. Engaging the world means meeting people, caring about people, and for him, hurting people when they get too close. So for now, until God finally calls him home, it’s work, home, sleep, rinse and repeat. That’s all there is anymore.
He’d been sitting in that small square room, crawling through a e-book, distracted by the dust, when a knock startled him. “Who-”, he said softly to himself. He doesn’t get visitors. He’d have to have friends for that. Maybe it was the door across the hall?, he thought, they have parties all the time. So he waited silently, not even shifting in his seat for fear he’d make a sound.
Two more knocks… Followed by a, “John? Are you in there?”
The voice was familiar, he ran through the audio files in his mind, trying to match the voice to the person.
Three more knocks, more forceful than before. “John! C’mon man! I know you’re home. I saw that same ugly green truck you drive parked outside. I can’t believe you still drive that thing!”
Then it hit him, “Pete? Is that you?”, he shot back, surprised he even spoke up.
“Yeah, now will you let me in?”, Pete replied.
John scrambled to his feet, flicked on the overhead light, dispelling the magical dust specks. He moved quickly to the door, looking back briefly to make sure the place wasn’t a total disaster. He didn’t really care all that much. He just figured that’s what people are supposed to do when sudden company appears. He unlatched the metal chain, turned the bolt on the lock, twisted the doorknob and opened the door. Standing in front of him was Pete Edmundsen, an old acquaintance of his from church. At least that’s how he characterizes it to himself.
The truth is, Pete Edmundsen was his pastor and close friend for years. Pete was a down to earth guy, who loved to engage people and could talk to you about anything for hours. He wasn’t just a guy who’d stand up at a pulpit and preach, although he was good at that. His real strength was in the pastoral work of knowing the people you are serving, then loving and engaging them, and reminding them personally of how God loves them, even when you mess up. When I say mess up, I mean sin.
Some pastors spend way too much time reminding you to get your act together before God would even look your way. They forget that one of God’s first acts of grace after creating humans was having a conversation with sinners in the garden to call them home. Pete was the kind of Pastor that always wanted to call you home. John huffed as he remembered, that he was that kind of guy once too.
Pete and John went way back, almost twenty years now, though it’s probably been over three years since the last time they spoke. They spent a good five years in ministry together, trying to plant a church in the inner city. Prior to that, Pete was the guy that persuaded John to remain in the faith. He never learned more about mercy and grace than when he learned it from Pastor Pete. He also never had more fun than when he started childishly referring to him as “PP”. Still makes him laugh to this day.
“Pete, what are you-I mean-why are-how…?” John fumbled over his words, still surprised by him standing in his doorway.
Pete pushed past him into the studio apartment, “Well, I pastor a congregation in Iowa now. It keeps me pretty busy.” John remembered after closing the church they worked together at, the offers pouring in for Pete to take a pastoral position in all kinds of podunk places. As he recalls, they were all met with the most resounding “no” that someone could give. Pete seemed to read the thoughts right out of John’s head, when he said, “Yeah, I know… Iowa, but things change”, chuckling a little over it. He continued, “Anyway, when I had a chance to come out east, I knew I wanted to see how you were doing. So…?”
John closed his door and turned to Pete, “So… what?”
Pete ignored his response, and robotically said, “So… How. Are. You. Doing?” Over-annunciating each word for affect. John thought, well, some things never change. He’s still a pain in my…
John awakened from his thoughts by Pete’s snapping fingers, “Hey. Hey. Hey. Earth to John!”
“I-I’m fine. I’m doing ok. You know me, plodding along enthusiastically” He hasn’t had a real conversation in a while, and wondered if his sarcasm was out of practice.
“It’s good to see you buddy”, Pete said with a familiar wide grin poking out from under that mop of a beard on his face, which was now quite a bit more grayer than he remembered. At least he still had one, John thought. He always had a hard time taking him seriously whenever he’d shave it off. He’d look like such a baby. That beard was any young theologians wet dream. People took notice of it. It commanded attention, it oozed with steely character and wisdom, at least until you opened your mouth to dispel the myth, which is the case with some. In Pete’s case, it fit him. He was a good thinker, and it’s just a fact that some people took him more seriously with the beard. It got him in the door of some conversation, and the adept exchange of ideas over any number of things theologically-minded would take him farther.
John knew Pete was being authentic here. Some people use words to fill up the silence in awkward moments, like when you run into old friends and exes in the street. You want to be kind and cordial, but you really don’t know what to say. You might say something to each other like, “Hey! It’s good to see you.”, knowing you really don’t feel good at all, you don’t actually feel anything, but, how many words do I have to use up before I move on?
One thing John knew for sure is, that if Pete said something, he meant it. The sincerity stirred something deep in him, but he shoved it back down with a looney tunes-like reckless abandon. Bugs bunny shoving two criminal goofballs into an oven came to mind. If only he could throw a lighted match in there and burn up whatever was stirring.
Don’t mean it. Don’t mean it. Don’t mean it. John repeated in his head as he responded, “It’s really good to see you too, Pete!”
Damn it! John screamed silently, then continued, “What brings you out east?”
Pete explained, “Oh you know, same old stuff. It’s been awhile since we’ve been able to do normal things, like real-life conferences and get togethers, but it’s finally starting to happen again. We want to hit the ground running, so I’m out here scouting a few locations out for the Synod.”
“That’s cool man, maybe I’ll come check it out when it happens.” John wanted that to be one of those friendly lies you tell people to fool them into thinking you really care, but the oven door was slightly ajar now, and whatever he felt stirring was leaking out.
“I hope so buddy. All the guys would love to see you.” Pete responded with more enthusiasm and even a bigger grin.
John wasn’t sure if the “guys” really would love to see him. People love to see people fall on their faces in YouTube videos too.
Pete walked over to the small square table in the middle of the room and sat down. John offered him a drink, and Pete asked for water. John made the long three foot trek from the “dining area” to the kitchen alcove and filled up a glass from a water pitcher in the midget-sized fridge that sat on the counter. He then made the long trek back and gave him the water. John poured himself a small sampling of bourbon into a short glass. He would’ve doubled it, but that was all that was left. He spends far too many nights trying to deaden his senses with drink. He’ll definitely need another bottle after this visit.
Pete grabbed the tall glass of water and took a sip. He brought it down close to the table and made circles with it, twirling the glass gently with his thumb and index finger. He cleared his throat and he shifted his body. John could see his posture changing. That enthusiastic grin gave way to somber and serious eyes. Pete was never afraid to say anything, but he always had a way of making the most out of what he wanted to say. Mark of a good preacher I suppose. He was about to make the most out of something. This should be good, John thought to himself.
“So, John…”, Pete began, “I really was excited to just come and see you, nothing more, nothing less. You’re a good friend and I missed you. I’m hoping we can catch up a little more later, maybe tomorrow over dinner. My treat.”
Pete doesn’t sound as nearly confident as he used to when he had something serious to say, John thought, I wonder what’s been going on with him? Life, christian or not, hits us all a little hard now and then, forces us to shift and change. This is definitely a change from the Pete I remember.”
Pete looked down at his water, took another sip and continued. “Well, on the flight in I got a call from Pastor Jake out here. He’s the pastor out at, Harvest Community Church, our old stomping grounds.”
John was hit with a rush of memories. The oven door he tried to close, broke off its hinges. That was where he and Pete first met. That’s where he heard for the first time, that God forgives even the habitual struggling sinner, even the ones that are Christian. That’s where he heard for the first time, “You are forgiven” and finally believed it. John pushed back hard on those memories, but there was no getting rid of them now. They couldn’t be shoved back into the oven, but he was damned if he was going to let Pete see anything that resembled an emotion come from him.
With a barely noticeable waver in his voice John said, “Oh yeah? I don’t think I know Pastor Jake. How’s the church doing?”
Pete, sounding a little bit more like his old self, said firmly, “Not too good I’m afraid. They look more like our old church pla-”, Pete stopped himself, remembering how much it hurt to say goodbye to five years of labor and love. “Harvest is pretty small now, probably a quarter of its original size. They’re even considering selling the facilities, down-sizing to something smaller and a little more manageable.”
John was sorry to hear this. He remembered the first time he walked into that church. It wasn’t old or historic-looking, but there were enough christians symbols, a cross, some stained glass to know where you were. Generally, it was much more contemporary in its decor. None of that mattered to him that first day. He sat in the pew, feeling awkward and out of place. As the service began, it was all very typical and familiar enough. Some worship music played as they sang. It was followed by an organ enthusiastically pumping out the simple melody to a few hymns.
That’s when it began to hit him. The hymns, and even the worship before it, were different. The focus of the music was on what God had done for us. Everything sung was centered on God’s grace. The music ended and the focus never shifted. The corporate confession, the silent moment for the confession of deeper sins, the forgiveness given out at the end of it all, was new to John, but it felt so right, so… real to him. Every aspect of the service was designed to look at Jesus. He still remembered the word he’d used to describe it, contrite. There was a sense of honesty in this service he had never felt before, like he had been sitting in a pew next to other sinners like himself.
Harvest will always hold a special place my heart, John thought, and he’s really sorry to hear that it’s fallen so far.
“Oh Pete. Man, I’m so sorry to hear that. You know what that place means to me. We meet there. I’ll always be grateful for what I took away from harvest.”, John exclaimed with honesty and grief. “I wish there was something I could do…” That last part was more of those fake pleasantries people use. It’s like a New Yorker asking, “How you doin?” All he’s really saying is, “Hello.” He doesn’t really want to know how you’re doing. “I wish there was something I could do…” is New Yorker, for, “Man, that really sucks. Too bad.”
A reasonable person would know this. Unfortunately, Pastor Pete was anything but reasonable. In fact, John completely forgot how well he knows him, which means for example, Pete knows that he tends to be a man of his word, at least concerning some things. Sitting alone in a studio apartment watching dust float, tells you he obviously failed at that on at least a few occasions. So, being somewhat a man of his word, and Pete being extremely aware of this, he has been known to ask for help, and John in the past, had been known to jump in, with both hands and feet.
John could sense this is where the conversation was heading and dug in, readying himself for the pitch.
To be Continued… (Maybe)