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The Visitor--an inspirational short story series

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"...Choose only entertainment and media that uplift you. Good entertainment will help you to have good thoughts and make righteous choices...Do not participate in entertainment that in any way presents immorality or violent behavior as acceptable."
For The Strength of Youth

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The Visitor--an inspirational short story series
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    Ch. 44 The Wisdom of the Wise
 
Submitted by Steven ODell on 15 January 2009 - 1:05am.

Against The Grain
Steven G. O'Dell © 2009

“...and all who are not baptized will be cast into a lake of fire! No exceptions!”

The words were rather like fire themselves in the way they struck Todd's ears. It was difficult for a boy of fifteen to assimilate and process such words and meanings in the first place, but there was something else that didn't resonate with him—would a loving God actually do such a thing?

“Only those who take upon them the blood and name of Christ will be saved in that day. All you need to do is confess it aloud just once and you will be saved forever. Who will proclaim that faith now? Will you be the one to do so?”

There were several voices, all mixed and jumbled together, proclaiming their faith and many heads nodded in silence. Hands were raised to heaven and faces to the ceiling as eyes closed and lips mumbled incomprehensible words under the breath. To Todd, it was almost entirely incomprehensible from start to finish. He would have a lot to think over before he could ask any questions of his parents or the pastor.

“Mom, is there really such a thing as a lake of fire?”

“My goodness! What a question. What has you thinking of such things?”

“It's what the pastor said. He said that if you weren't baptized, you would be thrown into a lake of fire. Is that true, Mom?”

“Well, Todd...I think it is simply a figure of speech, but the pastor would certainly know better than I would. Maybe you need to ask him what it means.”

“I will, but I need to talk to someone else first, just to get my thoughts and questions straight. Is that okay with you?”

“Certainly, but I won't promise to have the answers for you. Fire away.”

“Well, it also bothers me to think that good men like Abraham would be locked out of heaven because they weren't baptized, let alone cast into a lake of fire. Wouldn't Abraham be saved? He obeyed God and was a good man. And he was the father of all the House of Israel, wasn't he?”

“Actually, he was the grandfather, but you are right that he obeyed and was a good man.”

“Well, there were lots of good men and women in that time. They taught us about Moses and Isaiah and Daniel and Jeremiah and Esther and....”

Todd's mother stopped him before he started counting on the other hand. “I get the picture, Todd. I had never really thought about it before, but it is an important question, to be sure.”

“Yeah, Mom, it just doesn't seem like a loving God would punish the ones who obeyed him just because they were born before Jesus. Besides, didn't God put them on earth at that time, anyway? It doesn't make sense.”

“Todd, these are some deep questions you have. I think we need to write them down, don't you?”

“Yeah, maybe so.” And he went to get a paper and pen.

“Pastor Williams? Todd has some questions he would like to ask, if you don't mind.” Todd was accompanied by his parents and his two year younger sister, Alicia.

“Certainly, Mr. Hazen.” Turning to the boy and all smiles at the interest, he asked, “What can I do for you, Todd?”

“Well, pastor, I want to know if God would really throw anyone into a lake of fire.”

“That's what his word tells us, Todd, and God cannot lie.” He stopped and looked as if that should be the end of it, but Todd pressed on.

“Would he actually punish men like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob just because he caused them to be born before Jesus taught about baptism?”

The smile evaporated and a furrowed brow now replaced it. “It isn't a pleasant thought to entertain, Todd, but God did say that you can't be saved without being baptized.”

“But isn't that unfair if he made them to be born too early?”

“Todd, there are some things you just have to take on faith and this is one of them.” There was no hint of a smile, either on his face or in his voice.

“But there are so many things that don't seem right, pastor. Moses obeyed and so did Noah and Esther and....” Todd began to go through his list again. “Well, why aren't they better than the ones who didn't obey and were drowned in the flood?”

“Todd, I have an appointment I need to get to right now. Perhaps we can continue this conversation another time?” He tugged at his collar and immediately turned away without any further formalities.

The entire Hazen family stood staring after him in stunned silence. It was only too obvious that there was no pressing appointment. The man had simply felt too uncomfortable to listen anymore. Todd had rubbed him against the grain and it hurt. That now left burning questions in more minds than Todd's alone. But the truth was that it had rubbed Todd and his family against the grain, too.

Todd combed the Bible like never before over the next few months. He made notes on multiple pages and wrote further questions on multiple pages more. He began to wonder if the Bible could really be the words of God if they were to be taken so literally in some instances. Yet it seemed that in other places, where it was abundantly clear of the meaning, the pastor and other members of the congregation would twist them to mean something else—often as an excuse for their condemned behavior, it seemed to Todd.

Todd didn't ask any more questions of the pastor. In fact, it seemed as if the man were making efforts to avoid him, even to make eye contact during his sermons. Perhaps it had something to do with the profuse note-taking he caught Todd doing. At any rate, it was obvious to all but a fool that there was no sense in pursuing any further a question and answer session with his pastor. There had to be another way.

Todd quickly took to searching the library and the Internet for anything he could find on Christian doctrines. There were so many and varied opinions on the same issues that it confused Todd all the more. He had expected to get answers, not just more questions. Slowly the pursuit had become a family effort and a great hunger for answers became apparent to all.

Another month passed before a light shone figuratively through the clouds of doubt. It came from a source least expected.

“Make sure, class, that you study for the final test. Science is no good to you unless it can answer questions! Have a good weekend.”

Todd remembered the way the pastor's words had struck him and now the words of his science teacher had done the same and just as forcefully. Standing quickly, he made a beeline to the front of the class, bucking other students to catch the instructor before he could escape.

“Mr. Donovan? Can I ask you a rather important question?”

“Does it have anything to do with girls? Because I am no expert there. In fact, I don't think anyone alive has figured them out yet.” He laughed openly at his own joke.

“Well, no. I don't think I will have any problem there. I have a sister and she is pretty good at telling me what they think. Except for her and my mom, they're all nuts, I think.”

Mr. Donovan laughed long and loud at this revelation.

“What I want to know is whether science can answer questions from the Bible. Can it prove God exists even?”

All laughter was gone in a flash. Donovan was serious as a heart attack. “Todd, what makes you ask such a thing?”

“Don't be mad at me. I just need to know, that's all.”

“No, no, I'm not angry; I was just surprised and taken off guard by such a question. It isn't every day one of my students drops such a bombshell on me, you know? Come with me, if you have the time, and we'll sit down in my 'office' and hash this over a bit more.” He led the way from the room and Todd came to find that his 'office' was a seldom used set of stairs to the third floor classrooms that were often empty and unused. Donovan sat down and invited Todd to do the same.

“Alright, now what's this about?”

“Well, it started several months ago....” Todd went on to explain his thought processes and the chain of events. “And now my whole family wonders about some of this. I don't know where else to go from here. It seems like all the different churches can't agree on anything except that they disagree on everything.”

Mr. Donovan laughed again, but Todd knew it wasn't mean-spirited. Mr. Donovan wasn't the kind of man to hurt anyone's feelings intentionally. That's why Todd had confided in him.

“And your parents have no idea where to turn, either?”

“Not so far as I can see. We all are bothered by the lack of answers from religion in general. I mean, if religion can't answer questions about itself, what good is it, you know?”

“Todd, you just said a mouthful and your logic is flawless.” He took a deep breath and blew it out slowly and contemplatively. “You may have asked the sixty-four thousand dollar question right there.”

“What?” Todd wrinkled his brow in puzzlement.

“Never mind—old TV game show.” He waved his hand in dismissal. “ Anyway, I guess this all boils down to one thing and that is whether God exists, right? After all, if he does, then he could answer your questions better than any man could.”

For a third time, Todd felt struck, but this time it nearly made him go limp on the stairs. It was true—only God could answer these questions. Why hadn't he thought of that before? “How does a person talk to God...I mean, if he answers, how will I know it?”

“Again, very good questions. First, Todd, are you sure your parents wouldn't mind me talking with you about this? I don't want them to be angry with me or the school. These days you have to be careful. Too many people get bent out of shape too easily. And religion is one of the easiest things to cause it, I'm afraid.”

“No, Mr. Donovan, they don't mind. They want to know, too, and we all talked about it and decided that anywhere we could get answers that made sense was fair. They told me to go for it.”

“Go for it, huh? Well, if that's what they said, okay. Good advice in any pursuit of learning, actually.” He said this mostly to himself.

“Can you tell me what to do?”

“I can tell you how to find out for yourself, Todd. The best lessons are the ones you learn for yourself and not the ones you have recited to you to be memorized. What you experience firsthand always stays with you better.”

“Okay, what do I do?”

The advice had been simple enough. Mr. Donovan had told him that if there was a God powerful enough to create the universe and keep everything balanced and running properly, then he could certainly answer the questions of a sincere young man and his family. And if he was a caring and loving God, why wouldn't he want to?

It made sense and Todd took great comfort from it. The answer was so simple. Why hadn't any of his family thought of it before? It seemed strange that through all the years his parents had gone to church, and after all the prayers they had taught him to say or that he'd heard them say, not one of them had ever thought to ask for any answers to important questions before. They had done plenty of thanking, but no asking. Todd felt it was high time he asked something in return.

“Dad, Mom! I have to tell you something. Sis! Come here a minute.”

“What's up, T?” His sister had a pet name for him that no one used but her and he had learned to get over his initial annoyance with it and finally to cherish it, simply because no one but her ever called him that. It was their private ritual and he loved his sister as much as she loved him.

“Mr. Donovan told me today that we need to go right to the source to get our answers. We need to ask God to help us understand.”

Both Mom and Dad sat in slight bewilderment for a moment. Todd continued.

“It makes sense, doesn't it? We pray all the time anyway, but we just give thanks and never ask for anything in return. Isn't it time we ask for something we want?”

“Well, I guess I don't see why not, son.” Todd's father nodded his agreement absently-mindedly.

“What do you think, Mom?”

“I have no objections. It makes sense, really. All these churches and pastors couldn't tell us what we want to know, so why not?”

Todd now turned to his sister. He didn't have to ask. “Sure, T! I think it's a great idea!”

“Okay, then it's settled. We need to pray together to know the answers. Can we do it right now?”

Right then was as good a time as any. Todd knelt down and his family followed suit in rapid succession. Dad was often the mouthpiece when he was home, so he led the way. But this time it was different. There was a spirit of sincerity and of such an intense nature as none of them had experienced in their prayers before. It was as if there were someone in the room with them that wasn't there before. It was a special feeling of peace they felt as Todd's father said 'Amen' and finished. No one spoke for a long moment and no one wanted to move, but continued to bask in the warmth of the spirit that encompassed them.

Two weeks and three days passed away without any clear answers, but the family, every one, felt a sense of peace that it would come in God's own time. The spirit they had enjoyed at the end of that prayer was just the first of many that had occurred since then. Each time came that sweet sense of assurance that all would be well. Todd wondered aloud at dinner one night, asking why they had never felt such a sense of closeness to God before. None had a ready explanation, but it didn't matter. They felt his closeness now.

One day soon after, the drier broke down just as Todd's mom was about to load it with the wet, just-cleaned clothes. For no reason at all, it had stopped working. The electrical breakers were all in proper position, but still no 'juice'.

“Oh, no! Now what do I do? The clothes are clean and now the drier doesn't work! Argh!” Her exasperation was evident as she talked aloud to no one but herself. But a still, small voice came into her mind and quietly impressed upon her to pack the clothes and make a trip to the laundromat. She had to think a moment to recall where there might be one nearby.

A quick trip to the bank was required to obtain all the quarters needed to dry so many clothes, but in quick order the laundromat came into view. A man was just entering, a book in his hand. Likely he had a load of clothes washing or drying already. Or maybe his wife did and he was returning to meet her.

As Todd's mother entered behind the man with her first batch of clothes, the stranger turned to spy her and immediately asked if he might help her with anything further. He seemed to be a pleasant and jovial man, so she didn't worry about taking him up on the offer for the second and final batch which needed carrying in.

“Thank you so much! Most people don't care about anyone but themselves these days.”

“What is the cost of being a gentleman when compared with the cost of not being one?”

“My goodness! Are you a philosopher?” She smiled and almost laughed at the thought.

“If by that you mean, do I think deep thoughts quite often, then I plead guilty as charged.”

“My name is Emily. Pleased to meet you.” She extended her hand.

“And I am Timothy. Pleased to make your acquaintance, as well. Do you come here very often? From the looks of the wet clothing, one would guess not. I would think the cost would add up very quickly, if you did.”

“It sure would! No, for some unknown reason, my drier picked today to 'go on the fritz'. Strange, too, because there was no problem with it at all last week. Oops! I guess I shouldn't admit that I do laundry only once a week, should I?” She laughed for real this time.

"Well, it can't all be yours. Do you have any children you could train to help you?”

“Now, there's a solid gold idea!”

“So, Emily, what does your family do for fun?”

“Well,...” She looked into thin air as she thought about it. “We used to go camping during the summers, but that's fallen off a bit recently. Should do so again, I guess. It was fun. We play board games now and then, too.”

“Sounds like fun. Any unusual pursuits, hobbies or subjects of special interest?”

“Well, now that you mention it, yes. As a family we have been trying to get some answers to some very important questions. At least they are important to us.”

“Ahhh! Might I inquire the nature of the questions?” His interest was clear.

“We are trying to get answers to some religious questions and no one seems to have the answers for us. We have been praying about it and we feel that the answer will come soon enough, though. I don't know why—we just feel a sense of peace about it.”

“Then I commend you. A sense of peace, especially if the whole family feels it, is a sure sign that you have the beginnings of an answer already and that your family is in tune with the One who can answer the remainder for you, as well.”

Emily perked up at the answer. It had been spoken with such a sense of confidence that she didn't question the certainty of the conclusion. “That would be wonderful! My son, especially, has been searching for these answers. It will mean so much to him when it finally comes.”

“Perhaps I might be of assistance in the matter.” He waited patiently as he looked into her eyes with a kindness she had seldom seen.

“Well,...okay!”

For nearly an hour, Emily poured out first the concerns that Todd had voiced, then the new questions that had been generated by the lack of conclusive help from any church leaders. Timothy listened patiently as she spoke, at times venting her frustration with those whose duty it was to know these things. When finally she had finished sharing all she wanted, Timothy spoke.

“Emily, you have a good mind. I am impressed. And your family impresses me, too. This is an exceptional family you have. Do you understand how few really want to know these things or will take the time to discuss them, let alone with a total stranger?”

“Oh, but you don't feel like a stranger to me. I have been quite comfortable talking to you about these things. Maybe that's a bit unusual, but it's true.”

“Thank you. You are most kind. Well, Emily,...are you ready for some answers?”

Her eyes opened wide and she looked deep into his for a moment before she broke the silence.

“You can answer such things for us?” She searched his face as if she were studying the Mona Lisa up close in a museum and for the first time.

“Let's give it a try, shall we? And if you are as in tune with the Spirit as I think you are, you should have no trouble knowing if I'm leading you right.”

“Todd,....” Emily had just entered the house, leaving the dry clothes in the car, but carrying a strange book in her hand.

“What is it, Mom? Are you okay? You look different.”

“I'm more okay than I've been in some time, dear.”

“What do you mean?”

“Come here and just let me hold you for a minute.”

Todd obliged, but he was extremely confused over his mother's unusual behavior.

“Todd, we have our answers. Honest, we now know where to turn. Call your Dad and your sister in, will you? I have something to share with them.”

Todd made extremely quick work of herding the others into the room and waited anxiously for what his mother was about to announce. As she related the tale of the new friend who had shared her afternoon and his book with her, the look on the faces of her family members began to radiate a happiness that was entirely new to them. The room almost lit up with the smiles they bore. It was most certainly filled with the wonderful spirit they had felt to a much smaller degree previously. It was almost breath-taking in its intensity this time. And yet it was joyous beyond description.

“Dad, I wish that man who told Mom about all this could be here.”

“Me, too, Todd. But somehow I have a feeling he knows what we are doing. And I have a feeling he is smiling right now.”

“Maybe you're right, Dad.”

They both turned to watch as Todd's sister was lowered into the water for her baptism, knowing that Mom would be next, followed by Todd and then Dad. Todd couldn't help but think how important and wise it was to sometimes go against the grain in life. It sure had paid off this time.

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