(“faction”¹ with footnotes)
(In the Bible, believers are commanded to make and sing hymns and songs, as well as to listen to stories and consider parables. This short story, with notes to aid discussion, is offered in that spirit.)
I approached the monastery with hope. My hidden mike was on. The dark brown-robed figure at the base of the tower smiled and tilted his head down in welcome.
“May I ask a question?” I paused. “A serious question?”
“Of course. That’s why I’m here,” the stout man replied. Then eyeing me more carefully, “I’ll do my best,” he added, probably suspecting something. “Come on in.” He pulled back the scarred door, took me up a flight of winding stairs, seated me in a worn but comfortable chair while he pulled up a wooden chair with wooden armrests and descended upon it. We each half-faced a middle-sized window, its top arched into the stone layers above it and half-faced each other. The sky over the pasture below was pewter gray.
“I came here with only an hour to live,” I said. “And”—I glanced at my watch—“it’s taken me 25 minutes to get from my car, to find you and end up where we’re sitting. I have only one question: “What must I do to be saved?”
“Saved…” he returned, seeming to evaluate the word’s number after carefully placing it on a balance pan.
“Yes, ‘saved.’ You see, I know little about God, or what may be thought of as ‘God,’ and I’ve been led to think that the stuff I learned years ago is childish superstition that I should have outgrown. But when I look outside even in dim light and see the beauty of this field, and I look at the stars at night, I feel…there has to be something more. This just can’t have happened all by itself. There must be some kind of God and, if so, maybe a hereafter. That makes me uneasy. Can you tell me what I’m missing?”
“You’ve seen our chapel?” he asked.
“And our bookstore?”
“I see,” he replied.
“And, yes, I’m playing a game with you, but I’m really trying to understand. I’m not really going to die immediately, at least I don’t think so”—I glanced again at my watch—“and by my count I have only 33 minutes left!”
Minutes ticked away on the tall clock next to the wall behind us across the room. Slowly, the man, balding and somewhere in midlife, stood, adjusted his robe, and walked to the window and slid the short curtain further to the side admitting more afternoon light. Without a glance at me he returned to his seat, and appeared to stare far away as if I weren’t in the room.
I remained in my seat, letting my gaze pass side by side to his through the glass. At last I broke the silence that I refused to be embarrassed for causing.
“Say…say, just for example, I’m back from the battlefield and have been attended to, but I know I’m dying. I’ve spent nearly all my life looking after my family and myself, and not much else, and I recognize that you, however, have devoted a sizable chunk of your time to prayer and meditation, so please help me. And I’m not asking you to put any special oils or water on my head. What must I do in the time I have left to prepare for the neverland of death? Aren’t there some basics like what Jesus told the criminal who was dying on the cross beside him?”
Again, he stood and shuffled to the window. Turning, this time he glanced at me before going back to his seat. I envied his patience.
“I…I’m sorry,” I said, “I didn’t mean to be offensive . This is just the way I am. I should know better.” I stood and turned to leave.
“No, no, it’s okay,” he said just above a whisper.
We returned to our original positions.
“I have just 4 minutes left? What must I do?”
The final minutes passed.
“Time’s up,” I said, glancing at my watch. “My legs will carry what’s left of me out.” I stood and walked to the stairway. After taking one step down, I turned. “There’s nothing, nothing at all you can tell me?”
“Repent,” he said just loud enough to make me hear.
I descended the stairs alone and left².
A week later I approached the base of a second tower. This one was connected to a house and was the home of an alleged writer who was the friend of a good friend. Since he’d probably seen me from his third floor window coming up the driveway, he met me at the door before I knocked. This time he glanced at his watch first. I suppose I looked a little surprised.
“Eric said you might be coming,” he offered. Coffee appeared after I followed him up the steps to another floor. Together we sat again facing a window, much as the monk and I had earlier, though this time we looked out at the dock at the edge of the lake. How far the lake went was cut off by the trees. My host’s thick hair was prematurely gray. With his hand he pushed it back from his forehead. A small table was positioned between us where we could unload our mugs. A thick, worn Bible lay on the windowsill.
“Is it okay that I’m interrupting your day?” I asked. “Eric did say that you were serious, and that you did have rough edges, which don’t bother me, and that you were old-fashioned about some things, but still up to date about science and Bible things. And that you could listen.”
“My, my!” he returned. “ ‘Up to date?’ Hmm. I must warn you that I haven’t yet checked news online this morning”—his eyes were deadpan though his lips betrayed a smile—“because I’ve been working upstairs. But I could use a break—a short one.” Then came what could be interpreted as a warning look before he glanced at his watch again.
“Fine with me!” I said, “almost ‘prophetic’! Can I be honest and speak freely, and spare us the small talk?”
“Of course,” he replied. “Of course, too, some things I should never hear, some things I’m pretty naïve about. And I can get embarrassed—or, yes, even bored.”
“Uh what?” I set my cup on the table and leaned forward.
“Sorry, you said ‘speak freely’ and I have an active imagination!” He chuckled and, suddenly smile lines appeared around his eyes. He glanced at his watch still again before continuing. “So you want me to truly honest and open?”
“Absolutely!” I said. “Please be my tutor and tell me what I need to know.”
“Yes, and tell me what I need to know in the time we have left.” It was my turn to inspect a timepiece.
“I see,” he said.
“I’m going to die in 31 minutes,” I said. I’ve been encouraged to doubt much of what very religious people say today. But when I look out this window here and see the beauty of this…this lake, and look at the stars at night, heavenly bodies so far away, I feel…there has to be something more. But it’s almost embarrassing to admit this out loud. The world must be more than a bunch of random events that happened by accident without some outside ‘help.’ There must be some kind of God somewhere, and maybe even a hereafter.”
I stopped to catch my breath—and give my new tutor a turn.
“ ‘Thirty-one minutes, now 30’ ? Are you sure those minutes you have are guaranteed?” he replied. “I laugh about many things but I’m not sure I’d joke about that. God just might be listening. Now if I’m to be your tutor for—thankfully—only the next half hour, I’ll have to use my lips far more than my ears, and that’s not easy on the brain.”
Or the heart, I decided. His words actually startled me and I felt a tiny twinge in the left side of my chest. So much for the power of suggestion! I determined to ignore it. As if reading my mind, my new tutor smiled, softening my brain further. He reached for his coffee mug so I reached for mine, wondering if caffeine was the best thing for me now.
“What I’m saying is simply this: I’ve hardly been what you call wicked, or bad in a way that would attract anyone’s attention. I’ve done pretty much what I wanted, looking after my family and friends. I’ve guarded myself from being deceived, being careful not to be taken in by warnings about hell-fire and superstitious nonsense about a wrathful God like you sometimes hear on the radio. Often friends have reminded me that God, or the God idea, is all about love and that the true Gospel about God is simple to understand and receive very quickly. Does God really exist? If so, can he be real to me?”
“Yes and no,” he replied, almost automatically.
“Yes and no! How can you say that?”
“Well, you’re talking a lot, but only you only asked two questions: ‘Does God exist?’ Yes, I’m convinced he does. As to your second question, ‘can he be real to me?’ your tutor says ‘No.’ ”
“ ‘No’? Is God then a respecter of persons?”
“Since you put it that way, Yes, he is. He’s not going to force you or anyone to see things or do things his way. But He’s promised to save those who recognize their helplessness and truly ‘draw near’ to him, accept him completely, and do things his way. When people who’ve ignored God all their lives become as old as we are, they usually have to suffer, become very sad, or be terrified by something in order to turn completely around, regardless of the bright light that might suggest the possibility of Heaven. You, on the other hand, you don’t seem to be broken at all. But let’s set that aside so I can do the job you gave me, okay?”
“Uh…okay. So I’m not ‘truly’ whatever you said?”
“ ‘Truly drawing near,’ Yes, but I can be wrong. Does ‘I doubt it’ sound better? He glanced at his watch. “Before you came you had years to face yourself in the mirror and ask important questions which you don’t seem to have done, and now by my count, we have only 27 minutes to attempt what you’re asking.”
“Then let’s start. Where do we begin?”
“With God. We’ll start at the beginning with God. He reached for his Bible on the windowsill. The first verse in here says, ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.’³ Everything—matter and energy, space and time—begins with God.”
“But can we prove this?” I ask.
“Let me be brief and say only this: Almost all scientists who carefully examine the evidence admit that everything we know about had a beginning with the Big Bang billions of years ago. If everything ‘began,’ then some thing or some entity that’s beyond scientific understanding, and beyond time itself, had to start things off. Everything we know, every effect in time has a cause. Also, as star “furnaces” burn out, everything ends and disappears, even time itself.”
“Into a black hole, I suppose,” I interrupted, attempting a smile.
“Aha! I see you have done a bit of homework! But please realize not all scientists agree with this—even if they know about it. Now your tutor wants to inject a story—a brief one, but it includes you. You see that little sailboat with the sail that’s tied to the dock down there?” He pointed to the window.
“Do you swim?”
“Do you know how to sail?”
“Do you know how far it is to land on the other side?”
“No, I cannot see because trees block the view.”
“Do you know the depth of the water? Places where boulders rise to within inches of the surface where you could tip over or break your centerboard? ”
“No to all these,” I said.
“Well, I don’t have perfect knowledge about all these, but I and several of my friends can confidently take this boat across the water to land at the other side with great satisfaction…but not with complete safety…or by the clock.”
“Why is that?” I asked.
“Because of the wind,” he replied, “or the lack of wind. And the invisible wind always matters.”
“And how does that affect me?” I asked.
“Oh it does in every way!” he replied. “You see, a raging wildfire has forced you down the hill to the dock. And your only hope of escape is the sailboat tied there.” He glanced at his watch. “And you have 24 minutes to get away.”
“Okay, okay, I get it. I see the world and see myself and things around me changing. What about God? If the Big Bang has driven our molecules to the point of our having this conversation then—”
“Quite an imaginative generalization!” my tutor interrupted. “But for the sake of time, I’ll not challenge it. Go on.”
“What about God? What caused God?”
“That seems like a good question, but it’s irrelevant. We can guess, speculate, and ‘suppose’ all we want, but unlike the ancient Greeks, and the opinions of many scientists as recently as a hundred years ago, all our present scientific data strongly suggest that ‘time’ itself came from somewhere and eventually is going to end and disappear, perhaps in a black hole.” He paused and smiled. “So God, the ‘shaper’ of everything from the beginning, would, logically, have to exist ‘outside’ of time—or before and after, as well as during time—which the Bible, alone among ancient religious documents, actually seems to suggest. Am I going too fast?”
“But don’t scientists who are atheists say something else?”
“Yes, many do. But there’s pretty much agreement that time as we know it ‘ends.’ Just how—if you carefully read the fine print—is based on so much speculation that even scientists who ‘want’ to avoid a beginning and an ending like I’ve mentioned are hard-pressed, disagreeing among themselves , about ways to describe the data better⁴. At least that’s the case so far.”
“But nothing! Please let me do what you’ve asked. Add to what I’ve said three assertions that science can neither prove or disprove:(1) God created people, people in his own image—and let’s not bog down here on just how; and (2) because of this, people ‘feel’ (wonder, sorrow, hope, rejoice, etc.), think, ‘rearrange matter,’ and make historical records on a higher, radically different level from any other species regardless of similarities of our DNA to that of those species; and (3) from the Bible, we learn, and rightly so, that disobeying God—his laws and commands, lying and stealing, hurting other people so that we can get more—is called sin, a word describing evil that’s very out of fashion. God hates sin. Most important, it breaks fellowship with him; it also causes personal grief, separation from others, all kinds of sadness, despondency, and sometimes illness and death. God commands people who care for him to repent of their sin.”
“Somewhere I’d heard that word before,” I mumbled. “But doesn’t everybod—”
Suddenly my new friend stood, now towering over me. “Aren’t you and I supposed to be ‘dead’ serious now? I’m doing my part and now I’m running out of time! Now, put on your boots and get ready to walk the ‘Romans Road.’”
Again he picked up his Bible and turned pages until he was three-fourths through the volume.
“But,” I implored, “doesn’t context matter here? You just can’t pull words out of somewhere and make bumper stickers out of—”⁵
“Oh I can, and I just did, though I doubt if your bumper will be big enough! For your purposes now, I am the context! Of course you can leave and find another tutor who’s wiser. But while you’re here you have to trust me, at least hear me! Why? Because—and I’m using your own words—you’re going to die and I’m the best one nearby to trust. Didn’t your friend send you here?”
“You trusted him. Now let’s walk the ‘Romans Road.’ ”
“Because the Bible record is very helpful here, revealing certain things that science can’t tell us about, things that we feel to some extent but can’t easily explain. For example: “First, Rom. 3:10 says ‘There is no one righteous, not even one.’ That means that everyone sins and is a sinner. And God, the one who made us, hates sin.”
“But, but…but what about small—”
“Second, Rom. 3:23 says ‘For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.’ And God is in charge. That’s not hard to really believe, but understanding it may take more time than you’re willing, or able, to give. Third, Rom. 6:23 says ‘For the wages of sin is death,’ and that means an eternal death,” one that only the death of a sinless substitute, as Jesus was, can erase.”
“Wait! Wait! Wait! You’re just grabbing pieces here and there and arranging them the way you want. Is that fair? What about the thief on the cross? Didn’t he just offer a few sentences to Christ, who was being crucified beside him, and didn’t he right on the spot, as a God of love, promise him eternal life?”
“Context, context. I thought that bothered you! Now I’ve got a hammer and nails just outside because I’m repairing a shed. Are your hands and feet ready to be pinned against a tree so you can feel enough pain to give God what the thief did? I can provide a context to help you! I believe that Jesus’ words to him (in Luke 23:43) were the greatest promise made to an individual in the Bible. He said, ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise,’ while the crucified criminal on the other side of him mocked, and the religious people watching all the gory detail called for more evidence before they would believe—”
Suddenly, my tutor glanced down at his watch, his finger tapped the glass, and beads of sweat suddenly rose on his forehead. His eyes grew large. “There’s also Rom. 10:9-10⁶, but let’s skip that and leave the Romans road by an exit ramp to John 3—⁷”
“But, but, but believe in what and how? Don’t most already believe to some extent? Then, oddly⁸, my tutor’s hands began to move…and his lips continued as beefooore but I culd heeear no soooun
Author: John Knapp II
¹ I invite you to consider the second dictionary definition of “faction” which is “a kind of fiction based on… real events, real people, etc.” (emphasis mine). Of course, not all the events here did—or could—happen just this way as a later note will clarify.
² This was a Christian monastery, but not a Roman Catholic one. Certain details have been deliberately rearranged.
³ It’s very easy to overlook the very significant fact that the first sentence of the Bible declares that God “was” before everything else. This statement is unique for commonly recognized religious, and mythological, accounts that go back thousands of years.
⁴ “describe the data better”— The issue here is not “how many ways we can come up with,” but rather, With the data we have, what explanation makes the most sense? To examine seven alternative ways that scientists speculate time may end, see “Could Time End?” Scientific American (Sept. 2010). Of course, if we limit ourselves to ‘science’ to explain everything, we limit our confidence about much we do in our lives.
⁵ Our teller of the story makes an excellent point here. “A bumper sticker” Gospel can lead to more questions than answers. And, on the one hand the description of what is, or what God wants, can be easily distorted. There are a lot of words and important teachings in the Bible between Genesis 1:1 and the “Romans Road”! On the other hand, some who don’t have nagging difficulties in understanding can connect the dots more easily than others, especially if a couple of lifetimes of detailed study are not possible and, to mix a metaphor, the unpredictable wind might rise enough to fill the boat’s sails to send the sailor and his craft practically and safely out of harm’s way.
⁶ The skipped-over text of Romans 10:9-10 is as follows: “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.”
⁷ In the first part of John chapter 3, Nicodemus, a caring religious intellectual of the day, encounters Jesus to find out what truly matters. In the conversation, Jesus introduces the term “born again,” and experience which the man needs, and here the much-quoted formula of salvation, John 3:16, is presented—in an important “context,” of course.
⁸ The fictional, and amateurish, part of this “faction” betrays itself here! Sadly, there’s no way the first-person narrator of this story could have reported what happened on Day 2—especially the distorted words of the last sentence!
Addendum: Those interested in following some of the arguments and reasoning in this story might enjoy reading the Bible between Gen. 1:1 and “The Romans Road” (and beyond it), as well as exploring these websites: www.reasons.org, www.reasonablefaith.org, or www.johnknapp2.com.