“What I’m about to say won’t shock ya, cuz you already know I’m a heathen—that IS what you think, right?— but listen to the whole of what I’ve got to say before ya jump to any conclusions. Someone musta told ya I live out here, avoiding’ church, disgracin’ God, gettin’ to the end of my life. Right, son? Can’t think of any other reason ya mighta made the trip way out here on an evening like this one. It’s true. I’m no churchgoer. I ain’t involved in the church in any way no more.”
The thin, pale young man stared at the gray and brown man before him, then into the comfortable, intoxicating fire in the hearth, then at the steaming mug of coffee in his hand. “Cuppa coffee” the old man had called it when he answered the door. “Come on in, son, let me pour ya a cuppa coffee. That cold wind’s blowin’ somethin’ strong today.” Both cabin and owner were warm and welcoming, despite their rough edges. “Pard’n that messa logs out there in the front,” he’d said. “I had that old maple cut down this summer—hated ta do it, but there weren’t no other options—and haven’t gotten ’round to splittin’ them logs. Cold came extra early and I guess I hafta admit I ain’t as young as I once was. Movin’ a little slower, I reckon. But ‘nuf ah that. Come on in son. Let me get ya a cuppa coffee.”
There was something different about this visit. Most trips were battles. Blows were thrown. Arguments made. Look for a chink in the armor and attack! It was the strategy on both sides. And that was IF he even managed to find someone willing to talk. Doors usually closed in his face. That was the drill, the expectation. The cause was worthy, though, so he was willing to carry on. Some of his peers showed up to meetings with stories of great success, converts, numbers entering the Kingdom of the Lord—hallelujah! He never brought such news. He was tolerated by his peers, but, he often felt, only as a sacrificial act of good will. They let him tag along, but never expected him to accomplish anything worthwhile. No doubt that’s why he was sent to this address, deep in the woods. Sparsely populated. It would waste the time of one of the more successful. They had better things to do than to pursue one hopeless cause. Or was it two? He himself was sure to fail. Was he any different than the old man? Focus. Focus on the task at hand. Stand firm; you have a job to do. This is no time to feel sorry for yourself.
He need not have worried about the seconds sequestered by his inner arguer; the old man was in no rush. Pipe in hand, he rocked forward in his chair and inhaled deeply before closing his eyes, rocking back, and breathing a long smoky exhale sigh. His tired, work-worn boots clanged against the hearth as he shifted. Steven’s eyes were drawn to the fireplace. Below the simple stone mantle throbbed and pulsed that precise, indescribable living color of which fire embers alone are aloud to lay claim. It put him at ease. At peace. Something melted away as he sat in silence, and it wasn’t just the chill from the early winter wind which he’d carried inside deep in his bones; the shift was somewhere in his soul.
The old man rose from the rocking chair in front of the fire and slowly shuffled across the room’s bare wooden planks. With practiced ease he lifted a log and his joints creaked as he eased the wood onto the glowing coals. “I don’t go ta church, that much is true, but I’ve still got a bit’a fuel in the tank. I reckon there are still a few more miles to travel before my journey’s done. But ya didn’t come here to talk about my health.”
“I suppose that’s exactly what I came to talk about, actually,” he made an awkward segue. “All those who have fallen away from the Lord are losing health, but it’s never too late to return to Him. Returning to the Father is the only thing which will break us free from this darkness and bondage we find our world entrapped in. Spreading the good news of the Good Lord is the only answer. The Word of God Almighty has power to change this world.”
The old man paused for a moment, sighed, leaned back in his rocker, and picked up a scrap of wood and a pocket knife. He rubbed a calloused hand over the surface of the bark.
“How old are ya, son?”
“Twenty-five years old.”
“Are ya married?”
“No, sir. Still single. I guess I haven’t met the right woman yet,” he said, all the while wondering, Why in the world is this of any consequence? How did this whole conversation get so quickly off course?
“Ya got a job?”
Steven squirmed a bit in his seat. “Part time, here and there. You see, I can’t seem to find much importance in menial office work!” He exploded with the first flicker of true passion. “I want to do something that has a real purpose; that’s why I go around and share the Good News of the Lord. I don’t make much, you know, but it’s enough to get by, enough for an apartment and a case of ramen noodles every week. After all ‘it is written, Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Steven chuckled awkwardly, but his weak attempt at a joke apparently went unnoticed. Great. Now he felt like a loser, a failure, AND he was guilty of using the Bible as a joke. Stupid, stupid…mentally he beat himself down further.
“Hmmm,” the old man peered thoughtfully at the thin white face before him. “What do ya do in yer free time?”
“I read and pray and go to church meetings. Whenever I can, I go around to people’s houses and talk to them about the Lord and their salvation—.
“People need ta stop TALKIN’ ‘bout God fer a while,” the old man interrupted, “an’ stop readin’ and studyin’ for the sake of fightin’ and talkin’ bigger ‘en each other. It’s nonsense. Just stop it.”
Steven braced himself for the battle blow. The first attack. But the old man changed course and continued in the same quiet voice, strong, but soothing.
“My wife and I had children some fifty years back and we didn’t preach no sermons to the babies and expect ‘em to respond. That’s crazy. We just lived all together in this little house, teaching ‘em how to work, be responsible and respectable, take care of things, listen, talk an’ take turns. We taught ‘em lessons. We showed ‘em how to be part of a family, a community. To make it through the winter. To chop wood and grow food. Live off the land and treat it right. We taught ‘em things that please the Lord, I think. We went ta church, too—Elsie insisted on it—but they couldn’ta understood those words they heard in church without the accompanying lifestyle, ya see? It would be like if I went to a church in doggone…Paris! Er, Venice, er anywhere that don’t speak English. They’d be speakin’ the truth, I suppose, but I wouldn’t understand a thing. You see, life is like soil. You don’t buy a field and run out and plant seeds straight away. Most often, you gotta break up the soil, take out the rocks and roots, feed it, invest a whole lotta time ’n effort in what it’s goin’ ta be. Ya can’t plant those seeds until the ground is ready and the season is right. The word is good, but the works make it possible, I reckon.”
“But the Word says, it is by grace we have been saved, not by works so that no one can boast. And I’m holding tightly to the truth.”
“I’m an old man, son. There are many things I’ll never figure out, but I think I’ve learned a few. First, be responsible. Be responsible for other people. If you’ve got a family, take care of ‘em. If you don’t, find a family of some sort; everyone needs someone to take care of. And, son, get a job. Get a job that puts food on the table and shoes on your kids feet. Even if it ain’t what you always dreamed of, that’s nothin’ ta be ashamed of. Be on time, work hard, be dependable and trustworthy. Just take care of things. An’ this includes gettin’ rid of all this ridiculous, senseless “entertainment.” It ain’t entertainment. You wanna know what it is? It’s a drug. Taken in the doses all these young people take it, it tricks your mind in’ta thinkin’ ya don’t have ta be responsible. An’ I’ll hold ta that ’til my dyin’ day. Adults these days are kids because they don’t understand that dessert should come after a day of hard work and dinner. And it don’t come every day, even. But these kids, they wanna have fun all the time; they don’t git value or responsibility. But responsibility…it’s key ta settin’ this world right. Take care of yer family. Take care of yer job. Take care of the earth. Buy what you need and take care of it.”
“Second, I tell you, live simple. If it ain’t a cherished possession or a useful tool, ya likely don’t need it. Think about it. Git rid of the clutter. Makes bein’ responsible easier, too. Much easier. Save things that mean somethin’ special ta ya, of course, but if you can’t care for it, and ya don’t use it, ya don’t need it. It’ll make your life easier to manage, I guarantee it.”
“Third, for heaven’s sake, eat real food. Used to be we’d live a whole year mostly on what our cow, chickens, garden, and fishing poles gave us. Maybe a few extras here and there, flour, coffee, a bit’a sugar, salt, but it was just plain food. Like the Lord intended. None of them chemicals and preservatives you hear ‘em yap about today. Nothing fancy. No throwin’ food away. None of this impulse buyin’. Most weeks we et the same thing, but it sure was good an’ anyway and we really were thankful to have food! And Christmas feasts and birthday cake or pie was somethin’ we remembered all through the year. It was special. And apart from a cold here an’ there, the whole family was healthy as horses, even through the doggone winter. Nowadays people are sick all the time and makin’ poor decisions, but you know what? I ain’t all that surprised. If you don’t feed the body it starts to break down, it doesn’t work as well as it once did.”
“The fourth one is two things, but they’re intertwined. Pray an’ give thanks. Stop usin’ prayer as an excuse for laziness; God isn’t your servant. Don’t leave a list of tasks for Him to do that you ain’t willin’ to lift yer own hand to make done. Pray fer His will and His direction, for wisdom and guidance. Thank Him fer His blessings. There are more than ya might think. Then shut the hell up and start gettin’ things done. A stopped clock is right twice a day, as they say, but it’s useless. A piece a junk. Words, even the right words, don’t mean nothin’ when there’s nothin’ to back ‘em up. I see all these people talkin’ lofty words about right and wrong. You can keep your fancy-schmancy rubbish. Do somethin’ useful. Let me look at your life. Then we can talk about God. That’s what I think.”
“If the church is willin’ to preach that, and live it, I promise I’ll be the first one through the door every Sunday mornin’. I’ll sit right up there in my Sunday best in the front pew. ‘Let’s start talkin’ about God!’ I’d say. But I don’t get the feelin’ I’ll be back there any time soon. They tell me to give money and they spend it on fancy cars.”
Steven’s thoughts whirled with the words he’d just heard. He had to think. He had nothing to say. Could there be another way? Budding relief began to bubble its way through the smothering guilt and confusion which had consumed his entire life as he sought in vain for the right words—perfect terms to convince and transform. He’d sacrificed everything for words, but could they murder meaning? Did empty words end life?
“Oh. Ya leaving’ already? I apologize fer talkin’ too damn much. Don’t know if I’ve got much worth sayin’, but it’s my two cents worth at least. As you kin see, I live alone now, since my Elsie died, so whenever someone stops by I tend to talk his ear off. Son, you feel free ta come up here and visit any time ya want, ya hear?” said the elderly man with a dejected sigh.
Stephen turned, hand on the doorknob and for the first time all evening he squarely met the old man’s eye. “I hear you’ve got some logs that need splitting. I’m no expert, but I am willing to learn and I’d like to lend a hand. Mind if I stop by tomorrow?”
The old man smiled, tears brimming behind his eyes. “Thank you. I’d appreciate it. Yer always welcome here, son. Always welcome.”