Dead and Deader

            Aloysius Xavier Entréchat—who, since he was three, was called ‘Axel’ by his parents and everyone else in his life— picked up another pitchfork of manure and tossed it into the black plastic snow sled he used for a manure hauler. He had four more stalls to clean before it was time to milk the cow. He’d already fed the horses, the sheep, and the chickens. He was an hour into his two-hour morning chore cycle, and while his muck boots squelched in the detritus of his farm animals, his soul was soaring with eagles, wondering about the things he’d learned that morning, alone with God.

            His soul was still tender after the loss of his wife of thirty years to cancer ten months ago. The pain was still fresh, and the subsequent dismissal from his position as Pastor of a large Midwestern congregation added to his sense of dislocation. Yet in this time of great need, he found God ever so much closer. He was uncovering layer upon layer of meaning as he went through the Word each day. He was learning that pain and suffering were essential to understanding what God wanted to say to man, and, as he thought about it, it made sense. If God wanted us to become more like His Son, Axel thought, God would take us through the things His Son experienced. He leaned on his pitchfork.

            “God has things He wants to say to us, but He has to put us to where we can hear Him, first,” Axel mused aloud. The cow did not reply.

            “You’re waiting for me to put you where you can get the oats, aren’t you?” Axel said. The cow blinked once, shook her head and tugged at her tie line, wondering when the old farmer would put her into the milking stand, let her get on with her breakfast of oats, and relieve the pressure in her udder like he did every morning and every evening.

            Axel looked at the cow. “We’re just like you,” he said, prepping the milk machine. “God has so much to tell us and all we want is for Him to untie us, feed our face, and make us as comfortable as possible.” The cow, disgruntled at the comparison, replied with a long, low moo.

            “Yeah, yeah, keep your hide on, young ‘un.” Axel unsnapped her line and she bolted into the stand and tucked into the oat trough. Axel put the securing bar against her neck and got on with the milking.

            He was in his office at the church the next day. Mercedes Coach Lake Fellowship was tucked away in the middle of an upper-middle-class neighborhood, one of many that were making inroads into what had once been a rural area on the outskirts of a medium-sized city, but was now becoming just another bedroom community for commuters working in what had become a massive conglomeration of man-made wealth and opulence. Axel could never quite understand what people found attractive about all that steel and glass and concrete, all the noise and turbulence, all the ever-present undercoating of grime, corruption, greed, and perversion, which in its wake left broken hearts and broken lives. He was glad God had not called him into places such as that, and especially as he saw what was happening in the world now. He put a stop to his ruminations and turned from contemplating the well-kept lawns and manicured landscapes surrounding the homes that must have cost at least a million or two each.

            “How do they make that much money?” he asked, shaking his head, addressing Ol’ Ben, his border collie. Axel took Ben everywhere, even to church. Ben’s tail thumped the floor lightly, knowing his master was focusing his attention on him. Sometimes Axel thought Ben knew more than he let on.

            “Yeah, old friend, a better question would be, ‘Why do they make that much money.’” Ben grumbled agreement and put his head back down between calloused paws.

            Mercedes Coach Lake Fellowship had recently lost their regular pastor when that worthy was offered a staff position with one of the country’s mega-rock-star Christian personality pastors.  They needed someone to head up the ecumenical integration aspect of the ministry, as the rock-star personality had recently been contacted by the Pope himself (the guy in the dress with the fish hat), inviting him to become involved in the new trend raging around the religious world: integrating of Christianity with Islam.

            The Owner of the building and all the property on which the church facility sat, who was also the major stockholder in the church’s financial assets, and also the founder of the church (the name of which had been, back then, ‘Little Country Church’), knowing Axel had moved back into the area and desperately hoping to try one last time to bring the church back to at least a semblance of Christian orthodoxy, directed the Board of Selections to call in one Aloysius Xavier Entréchat off the farm and have him serve in the interim while they got things sorted and found themselves another potential Christian mega-rock-star personality pastor. Fortunately, the Board of Selections was having a tough time replacing the man, wanting to find just the right sort of shepherd for their particular brand of sheep. They fussed and fought and hemmed and hawed with the Owner, but they couldn’t get around him on this, and so they acquiesced—for the moment.

            Axel stood up and walked out of his office. Ben followed at his heels. He walked past the large soundproof room where the worship band practiced. He strode by the multi-media studio where the church produced their series of YouTube videos. He walked out past the dozen or so study rooms where the kindergarteners, pre-teens, teens, , young adults, single Moms, single Dads, and adult men and women had their separate studies. He came into the main foyer, walked past the coffee bar, and paused at the huge five-foot high bronze letters. The words proclaimed that the world was dead, but Mercedes Coach Lane church welcomed everyone, no matter who they were or where they were in their life journey, as they sought their own truth, to set them free to be alive! These letters were raised in bas-relief in front of an even larger sculpture of a dove. He stopped, and Ben looked at him, then, noting where his master was looking, looked up at the sign as well.

            “Whaddya think, old man?” Axel asked, looking up at the sign, hands in the pockets of his jeans, then down at Ben. Ben looked back at him, waiting.

            “Yeah, I know. What are we doing here?” Ben didn’t reply, but lay down. “So let’s git. Time’s a wastin’.”

            Axel opened the front door and Ben shot through and looked back.

            “Yeah, get in the truck.”

            Ben darted across the mostly empty parking lot and came to a stop in front of Axel’s old blue Toyota Tundra. Axel opened the driver’s door, Ben leapt up and onto the driver’s seat, then over the console and sat down in the passenger’s side.

            “Not sure I could do that, when I get as old as you,” he said, more to himself than the dog. “Now let’s get on. Don’t want to keep Mrs. Hennessy waiting.”

            Axel and Ben drove to a strip mall coffee shop with a strange Brazilian name emblazoned across the storefront, nestled between a Niemen Marcus outlet on one side and a Orvis outlet on the other.

            Mrs. Hennessy was thirty-eight minutes late for her appointment, but she breezed into the coffee shop like royalty, dressed in jeans, a white cable turtleneck, and an expensive North Face fleece pullover. She waved at the owner, who came out from behind the counter and they did the French kiss-kiss thing. They chatted while Axel sat in the corner, hands wrapped around his glass of water, praying, asking the Spirit to fill him and give him wisdom.

            She finally did another kiss-kiss thing with the owner, a portly woman of strange hair shade, and made her way to the table.

            “Pastor E, nice of you to meet me, but we could easily have met in your office, you know. Mercedes Coach Lake takes pride in providing our pastors with the best facilities.”

            “Yeah, well, this place is fine,” Axel replied. He didn’t feel she’d understand his policy of not meeting women in isolated places, alone. Give the enemy no occasion, he thought.

            “Christians should be different than the world,” she admonished, and tossed her bag onto the seat next to her and took off her fleece pullover, at the same time waving to one of the waiters. “We need to look different, sound different, and be different … we need to be, well, better. Look around you, Pastor. All these people, I mean, they’re dead. But we’re alive! We have something different!” She paused, resigned to the stodgy new pastor’s obtuseness. “But … hey, here we are,” she said, as if it was his fault they were going to be tainted with all these dead unbelievers around them at the coffee shop. She finished the lecture and turned to other things.

            “Your choice, my treat,” she said, and in one fluid set of movements hung her pullover on the back of the chair, pulled it out, and ordered a slim no-fat, gluten-free, caffeine-free caramel macchiato latte.

            “And for you,” the waiter lisped.

            “Hot chocolate,” Axel replied.

            “With almond, soy, coconut, or walnut milk?”

            Axel looked down at his hands. He was tired; he wasn’t supposed to have lived longer than his wife. He didn’t feel he was supposed to be here.  He definitely didn’t want to be in some upscale coffee shop, wondering what in all of God’s creation what walnut milk was.

            “Just plain old, white, cow’s milk,” Axel said, looking up at the waiter’s nametag, “Denver. Thanks.”

            “No-fat, low-fat, or …”

            “Just regular milk would be good,” Axel said, looking out the window at his truck, watching Ben in the passenger seat eye the people going by.

            Denver flounced away, and Mrs. Hennessy began the conversation.

            “So you know why I asked to meet, right?”

            “You said it had something to do with marriage counseling. Is Mr. Hennessy coming?” Axel asked.

            “We’re not together,” she replied.

            Axel’s right eye sort of compressed. “Not together, as in, what, divorced?”

            “No, no. We’re just not living together at the moment.”

            “Uh huh.” Axel thought for a minute. “How long has this ‘moment’ been?”

            “Going on five years,” she replied, and then held up a hand. “Just a sec, I have to take this,” and she swiped her phone. She looked at the screen and stood up and walked toward the bar. She spoke for two or three minutes. Denver returned with their drinks, Mrs. Hennessy in tow.

            “Sorry, that was Denison’s teacher. He has some issues at school.”

            “Right. How old is Denison? I should know but I’m new.”

            “He’s four, in preschool, and he’s a handful. He keeps acting out.”

            Axel sat there with his hands now warming around his hot chocolate while Mrs. Hennessy rambled on.

            “Denison seems to think he has to bully his playmates. He’s got way too much of his father in him.”

            Axel did the math. He was nothing if not direct.

            “So is Denison … his Dad, I mean … is it someone else? I mean, not Mr. Hennessy?”

            Mrs. Hennessy looked a bit confused for a moment, but then sat back in her chair. “I can understand how you might get that impression, but no, Mr. Hennessy—Jack—is his father. We have three boys.”

            “Uh huh. Okay, so, you wanted to talk about marriage counseling. Mr. Hennessy—Jack—isn’t coming, got that. How can I help you?”

            “It’s Sharon, by the way,” she said, and reached out her hand.

            “Axel,” he replied, and shook it.

            “Actually I wanted you to talk to Jack.”

            “Uh huh. About what?”

            Sharon sighed and took her drink in both hands. “He keeps pressing me to get back together, to live together again.”

            “Like man and wife?” Axel asked.

            She shook off the phrase like a duck shakes off water. Axel got the impression she found it offensive.

            “Look, about five years ago our marriage sort of blew up, and I kicked him out of the house.”

            “What happened?”

            She looked around, wondering if anyone could hear her, and she lowered her voice. “He was unfaithful with one of the other women in the church.”

            “Ow,” Axel said, grimacing. “That must have hurt.”

            “Yeah, well, I’m over it.”

            “Has he apologized? How do things stand now?”

            “Oh, he apologized right away, did the whole ‘repentance’ thing, went through the 31-step program with Pastor Lucas—”

            “Pastor Lucas?”

            “Oh, you wouldn’t know, Josh was the Marriage and Family Planning Counselor back then. I think he’s gone on over to Golden Glen Fellowship now. They’re really ramping up over there.”

            “Uh huh. Is Jack a Believer?”

            She looked at Axel like he had Alzheimer’s. “We’ve been members of Mercedes Coach Lake Fellowship for eight years.”

            Axel had heard that argument before. The Spirit told him now wasn’t the time to go down that road.

            “Okay, so how are things now between the two of you?”

            Sharon shrugged her shoulders. “Things are fine. Jack pays child support—a lot more than he has to, to be fair—and he comes up every other weekend to see the boys.”

            “He’s not in town?”

            “No, he works down in Ethansville.”

            “Ethansville … that’s like, I don’t know, I’m guessing around a six hour drive or so?”

            “Six and a half, actually.”

            “Every other weekend?”

            “Yeah, well, he’s attached to the boys.” She took a sip of her coffee—or whatever it was.

            “And every other weekend … so,” and Axel paused. “Denison, I’m guessing … was a product of one of those weekends?”

            Sharon laughed lightly. “Oh yeah, well, that happens occasionally,” she said glibly, tossing her head, her hair flowing in a long blond wave.

            “So, I guess I’m not understanding … you say Jack’s repented, he’s demonstrating he wants to be in your life—wait, has he said anything about that?”

            Sharon pursed her lips and tilted her head. “Well, actually, yeah, he really never stops about that. He’s always on about getting back together, and that’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”

            “About what, exactly?”

            “I want you to have a talk with him and tell him to back off, basically.”

            Axel sat back in his chair, perplexed. “You want him to back off. Right, okay, so, I guess I’m confused, why don’t you just divorce him? Not that I’m recommending that,” Axel said slowly, holding up a hand, “but if you don’t want to live with him as his wife, I guess … I mean, what’s the issue?”

            Sharon looked slightly uncomfortable. “Look, Pastor E, it’s like this. Jack has a great job and what he pays me in child support keeps the boys and I pretty well.”

            “Wait, quick question … where are you living?”

            “We’re still in the house.”

            “The house you were in before things blew up?”

            “Right. Actually it’s just a mile or so from the church.”

            Axel’s eyebrow rose. “That’s got to be a hefty mortgage.”

            “Oh, Jack covers that too.”

            “Okay, so let me see if I’m understanding. You don’t want a divorce, your husband has repented for his mistake, he says he loves you, he’s taking care of all your financial needs, but you don’t want him back?”

            Sharon pressed her lips together, and Axel detected the first signs of frustration. He’d seen it before in members of his previous congregation.

            “Look, you’ve never been a single Mom, so I wouldn’t expect you to understand, but my life right now is fine. I have all the money I need, I have my house, I have my boys, and I don’t have to put up with a husband and all the baggage that comes with that.”

            “So how did Denison come about?” Axel asked, a bit of gravel edging into his voice. He was getting tired. He wasn’t forty-five.

            “Hey, it’s the twenty-first century, Pastor,” she said condescendingly. “A woman has needs.”

            “I see.”

            “So when can I set up an appointment for Jack to come talk with you? He’s up every other Saturday, and he usually spends it with the boys, but I’m going to insist he makes time to see you. How much time do you think you’ll need?” She was pulling out her phone and swiping the screen.

            Axel looked out at his truck again, and there was Ben, sitting up, his eyes looking through the fancy Brazilian storefront window, hoping to get a glimpse of his master maybe walking through the door, coming for him. Axel turned back to Mrs. Hennessy, who looked up impatiently, but hiding with a fake smile.

            “I’ll tell you, Sharon,” he began, “I’m not going to see Jack. I will, though, give you some counsel about your marriage.” Before Sharon could react, he went on.

            “You’re the one in the wrong, here. Your husband made a terrible mistake, sure, absolutely, but God makes provisions for us when we repent, and, according to you, he’s repented. He’s bearing fruits in keeping with repentance as well, also according to you. But you won’t forgive him. Be careful. If we don’t forgive others when they repent, God will not forgive us. But hey, I can see why you won’t. You have all the benefits of a husband, without the responsibilities that come with having a husband. What do they call that now, ‘friends with benefits’? Yeah, but benefits on your schedule, not your husband’s. You have no idea what you’re putting your husband through, requiring he remain celibate all these years. You won’t divorce him so he can find another wife. And you won’t look at what you’re doing in the spiritual realm either. Your life shouts disdain for the symbology God intended the world to see in marriage. You’re shouting loud and clear to the world—and, what’s worse, to the people in your fellowship—that ‘the church’ can exist just fine without God, as long as God keeps forking over the blessings to keep you in the lifestyle to which you’ve become accustomed. So no, I’m not going to talk to Jack. I will tell you to repent, though, and if I were you I’d get on that fancy phone of yours and call your husband—he’s still your husband, in God’s eyes and in the eyes of the government—and ask him to forgive you, and then beg him to help you restore your marriage.”

            As Axel delivered this bitter truth, he watched Mrs. Hennessy’s face go from confusion to dawning comprehension to bitter anger to stone-cold fury. She stood up, picked up her fleece pullover and bag, and nodded.

            “Nice talking with you, Pastor,” she snapped.

            Axel sighed and watched her stalk out of the shop. Denver glided up, said “Hmmmm,” in a long, drawn-out verbal emoji, and with a disapproving mien handed Axel the bill. Axel had no idea a coffee could cost eighteen dollars and fifty cents.

            At least Ben was glad to see him when he got back to the truck.

            Two days after Thanksgiving, one of the assistant pastors (there were five) came into Axel’s office.

            “Morning, Axel. Morning, Ben.” Ben looked up, ears vertical.

            “Morning Jermyn,” Axel replied, rubbing a sore shoulder. A cow had kicked him the other day. “What’s on your mind?”

            Jermyn McDaniels, thirty-five, married with four children, was the fellowship’s assistant pastor overseeing the children and young adult teaching ministries. Ben had met Jermyn the second day on the job, when Jermyn had made it a point to mention how different Mercedes Coach Lake Fellowship was.

            “We offer people from every walk of life some hope,” he’d said. “We’re open and accepting and just wanting to shower them all with the love of Jesus.”

            “Sounds good,” Axel had said, having heard that line before as well.

            “We’re different than the world,” Jermyn had said. “The unsaved … well, they’re, like, you know … unsaved. They’re dead. But us, here, man, we’re alive!” He’d punctuated that last word with a punchy smile and fist punch in the air and then offering a fist bump.

            “Sounds good,” Axel said again, declining the fist bump. Grumpy old men are permitted to do that without it appearing socially awkward. And now here was Jermyn in his office again.

            “Coming up on Christmas, Axel. Just wanted to help you out with the routine.”

            “Uh huh. What’s the routine?”

            “First thing of course is the tree. We usually get it from Jamison’s, out on Route 45. He grows them especially for us.”

            “A tree.”

            Jermyn smiled, trying to figure out the interim pastor. He’d heard things.

            “Yeah, you know—a Christmas tree.”

            “A Christmas tree … oh.”

            “Yeah, I mean, you’ve been in the stock room, right? You’ve seen all those boxes of decorations, the silver and gold garlands? I mean, the electricity we use for lights alone could probably power a small city.”

            “Okay, um, let me see if I’m following you. The silver and gold garland, they’re for us to put on this tree we put up, I assume.”

            “Right, you’ve got it. I know some fellowships put their tree outside the building, but it’s traditional for Mercedes Coach Lake to have theirs smack dab in the entryway, so everyone can see it.”

            Axel didn’t say anything. He sat back in the worn leather chair and put his hand out, picking up his Bible. “You ever read Jeremiah?” Axel asked, flipping open the magic book.

            Jermyn laughed, shifting his stance. “Yeah, well, sure. I mean, we don’t get into the Old Testament much here, as you know, but I’ve been through it a couple of times.”

            “Uh huh. Well, funny thing, here in Jeremiah, God is talking to the Israelites about participating in the pagan festivals they had back then. God didn’t like it one bit. In fact, it was one of the reasons He kicked them out of their land. But anyway, here it is, you can read it right here, in Jeremiah 10.”

            Axel pushed the Bible across the desk and Jermyn took a tentative step and leaned over. He pulled out a pair of reading glasses and picked up the Bible and read the first few passages.

            “See the part there in verse four about stringing up silver and gold on the trees they cut out of the forest?”

            Jermyn put the book down. “Yeah, I get that Axel, but seriously, Christmas is a Christian holiday. The entire Christian world celebrates Christmas. It’s the birthday of our Savior!”

            “Not really. It’s actually a Babylonian holiday, but let’s not get into that now.” Axel sighed and pulled his Bible back across the desk and closed it. “So when I took this position, they had me sign a bunch of by-laws.”

            Jermyn looked at him sideways. “Yeah … yeah, I remember.”

            “Well, in there somewhere was a condition that says nothing is done during my term as interim pastor without my permission.”

            Jermyn didn’t say anything, and Axel went on. “So this year, while I’m pastoring this church, we are not going to participate in a pagan festival that celebrates the Sun God and his avatar, the fat man in the red suit.”

            Jermyn shook his head. “Axel, I mean, man, that is not going to go over well with the church.”

            “Uh huh. Didn’t think so. Nonetheless, that’s how it’s gonna be. Now, Jermyn, is there anything else?”

            After one Sunday service, Axel was standing around talking to a few younger members of the fellowship when a man in his mid-fifties, well-dressed in a suit and tie, came up and introduced himself.

            “Jared Gunther,” he said. “We haven’t met yet. Welcome to Mercedes Coach Lake.

            “Good to meet you, Jared,” Axel replied. “Axel Entréchat.”

            “It was an interesting sermon,” Gunther said, coughing slightly.

            “Romans 9, 10, and 11 are profound chapters, true.” Axel replied.

            “Well, I don’t think anyone in this fellowship really follows what you were talking about with this connection you make with the Jews. That was a little confusing. God is pretty much done with the Jews—as a people, I mean.”

            Axel looked a little more closely at Mr. Gunther. “What do you mean, ‘done with’? Not sure I follow you.” The young people Axel had been speaking with were listening closely.

            “I guess that most of Christianity today is getting a better understanding that God’s message of salvation doesn’t come from the Jews any longer, but from Christians. We carry the message of God to the world.”

            “That’s not exactly what we read in the Bible here,” Axel replied with a glint in his eyes. “Especially in Romans, and especially in chapters nine, ten, and eleven.”

            “Uh, yeah, but there we have some serious problems with Paul here, you know. We really emphasize the red letters in this fellowship. We focus on what Jesus had to say. In a lot of things he wrote, Paul doesn’t fit the world as it is today. We’ve got some gay members of the congregation who have a real problem with Paul. Of course Paul is gonna puff up the Jews; he was a Jew himself. What do you expect?”

            “Jesus was a Jew,” Axel shot back.

            Gunther coughed into his hand. “Yeah, well, the jury is still out on that issue too, Pastor. And I wonder that you’d be putting this stuff out when the entire Christian world is moving in the opposite direction. Look, the world knows the Jews as a people group are dead. Most Christians are actually thinking they’re anathema. But look around you, Pastor,” and here he made a sweeping gesture that took in the entire sanctuary, which looked somewhat like a miniature football stadium. “We’re alive here! We’re different!”

            Axel was well aware of the massively festering anti-Semitic bias in the major so-called ‘Christian’ religions of the day. “Well, most of the so-called Christian world is moving in that direction, but that’s just prophecy being fulfilled. Paul talked about a coming ‘great apostasy’. We’re in it now, right up to our eyeballs. There are some, though, who know their Word and know their God. There are some hard times coming, and if you find yourself in need of light and truth, they’re the ones who can help.”

            Gunther shook his head. “Hope you don’t mind me disagreeing, Axel, but I don’t think so,” he answered. “And I don’t see how you can say there’s an apostasy. Seriously, haven’t you read what’s happening in the world?” Gunther pulled out his phone, made a few swipes, and called up a recent news article. “There’s a ton of these out there,” he said, and held up the phone showing the Pope shaking hands with an Imam. “Look, most of the world is actually coming together, religiously speaking, not falling away, like you claim. Anyone with any kind of desire to see the world healed would rise up and call that trend a blessing.” Gunther stopped suddenly, bent over with a deep, hacking cough. He was breathless for a moment. His face reddened and his eyes watered.

            “You ought to get that looked at,” Axel said in a blank monotone. “Doesn’t sound good.”

            The following Wednesday was Testimony Night. Axel didn’t exactly know what ‘Testimony Night’ was, so he asked the assistant pastor for media relations, Ziggy Mbuke.

            “Hey, Axel, yeah, well, about once a quarter we have some of the young people in and we film their testimonies. It’s sort of a prep for their baptisms the following Sunday.”

            Axel nodded. “You get that many new converts?”

            “Oh yeah. The word is spreading out there, and the young kids are looking for meaning in their lives. They’re looking for something that’s alive, and man, that’s us! The world, the unbelievers, well, you know, like, they’re dead, but not us; not here, not now, no way, man. These kids, they need a culture they can fit into, a lifestyle they can relate to, and one that lifts them up and encourages them.”

            Axel nodded. “I see.”

            “Yeah, man, so, come on by. I think you’ll like it.”

            So Axel found himself sitting in the back of the media studio the next Testimony Night, watching Ziggy orchestrate a group of three young people who were recounting their decision for Christ. Ziggy took one at a time, which left two sitting down, and they plunked themselves down, one on one side of Axel, and the other on the other side of Ben.

            “So hey, you’re the new Senior Pastor, right?” one of them asked, gushing, a young woman who looked to Axel to be about eight. “Nice to meet you. I’m Alicia.”

            “Good to meet you, Alicia.” Axel looked around behind him. “Your parents here tonight?”

            “Hah!” she said, with a little laugh. “My parents are on the other side of the country. I’m going to college in town. This is a great church, you know? I never thought religion could be so cool! I mean, all my friends, they’re like, dead, you know? I mean, spiritually, but the people I’ve met here, oh boy, they’re like so alive! Isn’t it fantastic!”

            Axel nodded once. Alicia jumped up and pulled her phone from a pocket and began texting to someone.

            “Going so soon?”

            “Yeah, no, it’s just my girlfriend. She’s having a fight with her boyfriend and she’s really upset.”

            Axel, direct as always, said, “What’s the fight about?”

            Alicia spoke while her fingers flew over the little tiny keyboard that Axel couldn’t see without a magnifying glass. “Oh, her boyfriend doesn’t want her to have an abortion, but Suzy is going to anyway.”

            Axel had known he would need to be prepared for anything when dealing with so-called Christians in this day and age, but that little piece of information threw him for a loop. But the Spirit was guiding him, so on he pressed.

            “What are you telling her?”

            Alicia’s eyes were still on the keyboard. “That she should go ahead and do it. It’s her body, isn’t it? I mean, she’s my friend, I have to support her.”

            “But is she right?”

            Alicia turned to look at him and said something that Axel realized later encapsulated a lot of what he was seeing in today’s church environment.

            “Does it matter? Right now she needs my support.”

            “Uh huh … so, no matter what she’s doing, you think that supporting someone is telling them that it’s okay.”

            “Duh. Isn’t that what love is” she asked, and then moved off to text more privately.

            “Actually no. Loving someone means you tell them the truth.” But Alicia had already moved off, and it turned out he was just talking to his dog. Ben agreed, fortunately.

            After a few minutes scratching behind Ben’s ears to regain some measure of reality, Axel turned to the young man on the other side of Ben, who also had his head down in his phone.

            “Axel Entréchat,” he said, introducing himself.

            “Oh, hey. Uh, yeah, I’m Greg. Greg Panchet.” The young man went back to texting on his phone.

            “So what brings you in here tonight?” The young man was of medium height, broad in the shoulders, with classic features. Axel guessed the ladies would find him handsome.

            “Yeah, uh, I wanted to record my testimony.” The young man looked back down at his phone.

            “So practice and tell me about it.”

            A little peeved, yanked away from his electronic pacifier, but trying not showing it because Axel was, after all, the Senior Pastor, and because he was a ‘Christian’ now, so that kind of thing wasn’t appropriate, he condescended to engage Axel in conversation.

            “Okay,” he said, with a belabored sigh, as though Axel had just asked him to run the marathon. “I just felt that I need to get some grounding. I need some hope in my life. I mean, everyone I know, all the unbelievers, they’re like, dead, you know? Yeah, I’ve struggled with some things, but the people here tell me that a relationship with Jesus changes everything. I can see they’re so alive here. I don’t know, maybe I can get some confidence that things will be okay. And maybe I can share that hope with others.”

            Axel nodded. “Ziggy tells me that after you stand up and give your testimony next Sunday, you’ll get baptized.”

            “Oh yeah, right.”

            “What does that mean to you?”

            Greg thought about it for a moment. “I guess it’s sort of like an initiation, you know? Sort of a ‘welcome to the family’ moment.”

            Axel sat there for a second, wondering that he hadn’t heard anything about the basic Christian foundational understanding that baptism represents the act of dying to one’s sin and self, and being raised in the newness of Christ’s life. He wondered what the youth pastor was teaching these kids.

            “Will your parents be there?”

            “Oh yeah, and my fiancé will be, too.” Eyes again on his phone.

            “You’re getting married?”

            Head still down, fingers still moving. “Yup, in about a year or so, once we figure out which school she’ll be going to.”

            Axel found it disconcerting to be having a conversation with someone who didn’t have the courtesy to give the conversation his full attention. But maybe that was what they taught kids these days.

            “School?” Axel thought the kid looked to be in his mid-twenties or so.

            “Yeah, we’re both thinking about med school, and she has her pick. Once she figures out where she’s going, I’ll apply to the same school.” Head back down.

            “I get it,” Axel replied, and ran a hand over Ben’s head, scratching his ears. “Your fiancé a Believer?”

            “Oh yeah.”

            “She’s not here tonight? I’d have thought she would want to see this.”

            “Yeah, well, she goes to Saint Luke’s.”

            Axel thought for a moment. “Saint Luke’s … that’s the Catholic church, what, about four miles down on 76?”

            “She’s a Catholic?”

            “Uh huh,” Greg answered, fingers moving over his phone.

            “Sorry to break it to you but you can’t follow Catholic teaching and still call yourself a disciple of Jesus. It’s like trying to say water is dry, or day is night. Doesn’t float.”

            Greg stopped texting and looked at Axel for just a moment, and then went back to his phone. “Yeah, whatever. So maybe it’s a good thing she’s not coming, right? Don’t want to hit her between the eyes with that newsflash.”

            The Spirit kept at Axel to press into the conversation further, even though Axel just wanted to take the kid’s phone and hit him over the head with it.

            “Where are you two in your relationship? How long have you known each other.”

            Axel could tell Greg was just about at the limit of his patience with the old guy interrupting his cyber conversation, but he stretched himself.

            “We met about eight months ago. We’ve been living together for about five months now.”

            Axel thought he hadn’t heard correctly.

            “Living together?”

            Greg looked up, and Axel saw clearly the challenge in the young man’s eyes. “Yeah. We thought we ought to try and see how that works before we take the big step and get married, you know? It’s just common sense.”

            “You’re not worried that God says not to do that?”

            Greg screwed up his features for a second, conveying the clear impression that he thought Axel was somehow mentally deficient for not understanding. “Uh, if that was the case, why would the assistant pastor for young adults be okay with it? And why would my parents be okay with that? I mean, we’re staying in an apartment in their basement. If it was all that bad, why would they be okay with that?”

            Axel sat for another few seconds. “You’re sleeping with your girlfriend, in their house, and they’re okay with that?”

            “Duh. Guess so. Not sure why you think it’s a problem.”

            “And … and you did say that your folks were Christians?”

            “Yeah, they’ve been members here since, like, forever. And yeah, they’re Christians. They may not be your kind of Christian, but they love me, and isn’t that what being alive in Christ is supposed to be all about?” Greg stood up. “Yeah, gotta go, I’m up next.” The young man tucked his phone into a pants pocket and went to join Ziggy on the stage in front of the camera so as to show the entire congregation—and everyone in the world via the Internet—how dedicated he was to becoming a Christ-follower.

            The next morning Axel called in the assistant pastor for young adults and recounted the conversation he’d had with Greg Panchet, checking the story. The assistant pastor confirmed everything Greg had said, and actually got a little testy when Axel questioned his approval of Greg’s living arrangements.

            “Listen, Axel, you can’t impose that kind of ancient morality on kids these days. You’ll lose every one of the young people we have in the fellowship, and I mean, like, every single one.”

            “I’m not the one imposing that morality, Mike. It’s right here in God’s Word, and it hasn’t changed.”

            “That’s not the way we see it, Axel. Too many people are searching for God in their own way and we can’t shut doors like that.”

            “But Mike, what if you’re just holding open the door to hell?”

            Mike looked agitated and then resigned. “Again, that’s not how we see things here, Axel.”

            “Yeah, well,” Axel replied, pausing. “There’s this thing in the by-laws they had me sign before I took this job,” he began, but Mike cut him off.

            “Yeah, Jermyn told me about that, and that’s something else. I don’t know why the Selection Board was stupid enough to put that in your contract, but I can tell you they’re looking at it hard as we speak. I know, because my Dad’s on that Board.”

            “Good for him, but since they haven’t changed it yet, here’s what’s not gonna happen. You’re not going to baptize any one of those kids scheduled for baptism this Sunday until I’m personally convinced they know what that means, and that their lives demonstrate conformance to what baptism means, and that means that they had better show some fruits of repentance and convince me that they know what kind of a commitment they’re making. Otherwise you’re making a mockery of the millions of true-hearted men and women who have put their sin and their selves to death and been raised up in newness of life, and doing so, found that it cost them their lives as martyrs.”

            Mike was shaking his head. “Man, whoa dude, the parents are not gonna be happy about that. They’ve been scheduling this for, like, months. They’ve got relatives coming in from all over, it’s like—”

            “Like a lot of things in this building, it’s like a media circus, and I’ll not have any of that foolishness on my watch. Either Christianity bears truth to the world, or it isn’t Christianity. Salt loses its savor and it’ll just get trampled under the foot of men. Don’t you see that, Mike?”

            Mike stood there with a look on his face that Axel could only interpret as snide condescension. Axel sat back in his chair.

            “We’re done here,” Axel said. “Except for one thing.”

            “Yeah, what’s that?”

            “You’re no longer the Young Adult Pastor.”

            “You can’t do that!” Mike exploded.

            “I just did. And you can check with your Dad to see if that authority is in my contract, but I can save you the time, because I checked before you pushed the door open to my office ten minutes ago.”

            “You’re not gonna last another month here, you know that?”

            Axel looked down at Ben, who, catching his master’s eye, thumped the floor again with his tail.

            “God, will it take that long?” he asked.

            The phone call from Greg’s parents was anticlimactic. Greg’s mother read him the riot act about who did he think he was, judging her son about his lifestyle choices, and didn’t he know that Jesus was all about loving people and accepting them no matter what choices they made?

            “Then why don’t you love your son?” Axel said, interrupting her tirade like an axe coming down on a dry twig.

            “What are you talking about? How dare you question my love for Greg? He’s my son. And how could you possibly know the love of a mother for her child?”

            “What are you doing, calling the Senior Pastor of this church, Mrs. Panchet?”

            “What kind of question is that?” she asked, temporarily confused.

            “I mean, why are you talking with the Christian pastor? I’ll answer the question for you. You’re talking to me because you’re a member of this church, right? And you’re a member of this church, not the Church of Satan down the street, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints down the street, or the Jehovah’s Witnesses down the street. You’re a member of this church, which, as I was told when they signed me on here, was a Christian church, and—”

            “Are you questioning my Christianity?”

            “—and since it’s a Christian church, it adheres to Christian doctrine, and if you have a Bible handy, you can open it up to 1 Corinthians 6. It says there that fornicators, or idolaters, or adulterers, or perverted effeminates, or homosexuals or thieves or covetous, or drunkards or revilers or swindlers, will not inherit the kingdom of God. You can look up Hebrews 13, where it says that God will judge fornicators and adulterers, and the clear context is that the judgment won’t be favorable. So if your son, who you say you love, is fornicating with his girlfriend, why would you permit him to do that? Don’t you love him enough to tell him the truth?”

            Mrs. Panchet shot right back. “You don’t understand. You’re just all about judgment. Yeah, you can quote the Bible back and forth and sure, you might know the Bible better than I do, but I know what I know.”

            “Mrs. Panchet, if we go through life depending on what we know, we’ll all of us be consigned to hell. We need to go through life knowing what God knows, and He only shares with us the things He knows when we’re obedient to what He has already told us—in His Word. He is intimate with the upright, but He does not share things with the wicked. But I get what you’re talking about, this being all about love.”

            “Then—”

            “It’s all about love of yourself. You don’t want your kid to be angry with you. You want him to like you. You think love is supporting someone no matter what they do. That’s not how God looks at life, and if you think that, you’re in for a rude awakening when you stand before Him on Judgment Day. And before you hang up, let me make this point too. I love you enough to tell you this.”

            After Axel’s third week in the job, be began to get the idea that things in Christianity weren’t exactly as he’d remembered. He’d known the apostasy was upon them, but he hadn’t expected to see it so intensely, to have it thrust in his face, as it were. He began to develop a visceral, experiential understanding what Jesus meant when He said in the last days there would be a massive deception. He was watching it happen before his eyes.

            The day after Axel canceled the baptismal ceremony, the group of elders came to his office. Ben let Axel know they were coming before they got within fifty feet of the door, though, so when they walked in, Axel wasn’t surprised.

            “Axel, good morning, how are you today?” Dresden Forbes said, extending a well-manicured hand. Axel, recalling breaking the ice on the livestock’s water trough that morning, and thought about his own ice-cold water manicure.

            “Drez, hello.” Dresden was the ‘Chief’ Elder in the fellowship, and a leading member of the Selection Board, and Axel had already figured out that Dresden thought every pastor that came through his church needed to tremble whenever he approached, and Axel realized that was because Mr. Dresden Forbes thought Mercedes Coach Lake Fellowship was his church. Their frequent differences of opinion stemmed from the fact that Axel thought Mercedes Coach Lake Fellowship was Jesus’ church. He was beginning to learn, though, that it wouldn’t be for much longer.

            “Thought we would drop by and give you some good news,” he said, all bonhomie and ‘hail-fellow-well-met’, but Axel could tell that there was a big burr under Forbes’ saddle.

            “Good news is what we deal with here,” Axel said without thinking. It was just the way his mind ran.

            “Hah, yeah, that’s a good thought, Axel, very good,” said Jim Zukowski, another prominent member of the group of elders.

            The members arranged themselves on the chairs and couches in Axel’s far larger-than-necessary office (Ben didn’t need all those chairs, though he did enjoy a nap on the couch now and then). Dresden, though, remained standing.

            “Axel, we’re proud to tell you that of all the churches in this country, Mercedes Coach Lake Fellowship has been selected to send their Senior Pastor as the U.S. Protestant representative to the dedication ceremony for the world’s first Religious Integration Charter.”

            Axel sat there and slowly put out his hand and ran it over Ben’s head. He should have expected something like this, seeing as how the last three weeks had been going.

            “Dedication ceremony?” he asked.

            “That’s right,” Zukowski put in. “Probably the most prestigious gathering of religious leadership in the world.”

            “So,” Axel began slowly, feeling his way, praying silently for guidance from the Spirit, “where is this ‘dedication ceremony’ being held, exactly?”

            Zukowski looked at Forbes to answer.

            “It’s in Davos,” he said.

            “That’s in Switzerland,” added Miriam Borodine, another member of the group of elders, a prominent woman in the community, and definitely, from what Axel could gather watching the other women and most of the men interact with her, one of the most prominent women in the fellowship.

            “Uh huh. And what exactly is this ‘Religious Integration Charter’?” Axel asked. He knew what it was. He didn’t spend all his time at home milking cows, and was far more familiar with not only the substance of the charter, but its demonic origins and the perverted personal and religious history of its advocates, than any one of the elders in his office. But he wanted to see how they would describe it. He wasn’t surprised.

            “It’s the most important event in the history of the church,” Borodine said with not a little condescension. “It will be an opportunity to pray with the leading men and women of the world’s major faiths. And I would think you’d be honored to have been selected to attend.”

            Forbes, no slouch in the sales business, recognized that Miriam’s comment might have sounded a little harsh. “Now, Axel, this is an incredible chance for you to take the trip of a lifetime.”

            Axel rode over that little olive branch. “This came about because your previous Pastor is in tight with the committee over there, correct?”

            Zukowski looked at Forbes who looked at Borodine and Axel suddenly remembered an old sermon he’d heard from a very wise South African pastor about the spirit of Jezebel, and the Spirit immediately quickened him to the fact that he was dealing with just that spirit in Mrs. Borodine. She was the real ‘power behind the throne,’ so to speak, at Mercedes Coach Lake Fellowship. But unfortunately, Axel was of the old school, which didn’t think women should be exercising spiritual leadership over men. He wasn’t a misogynist; it was just that he trusted what God said in His Word about that particular dynamic.

            At first he was tempted to just tell them to send someone else, because there was no way he was going to just up and leave his farm and jet off to Switzerland to participate in a demonic ceremony helping to usher in a one-world religion which any half-baked student of Scripture could see was demonically backed and would wreak terrible havoc on real Believers. But Axel didn’t think they’d take that very well.

            “Well, that’s nice and all, but you can tell them that Mercedes Coach Lake Fellowship isn’t sending anyone.”

            The room grew suddenly quiet, as though the air had been sucked out all at once. The sense of good will and niceness began to evaporate, and Axel caught Borodine’s eyes narrow and her lips compress.

            “This isn’t really your decision,” she said sharply.

            “What, are you going to all hog-tie me and put me on the plane by force? You can’t make me go.”

            There were some uncomfortable looks around the room then, as they began to realize Axel wasn’t as afraid of them as they thought he should be, and that meant—horrors—they weren’t going to be able to control him. Forbes figured that out first.

            “Well, sure, okay Axel, we understand, you’ve got your farm there and hey, I suspect it’s tough to get someone in to milk cows twice a day, isn’t it?” Forbes asked, not really expecting an answer. But Axel stopped him cold.

            “And we’re not sending anyone else, either.” This they hadn’t expected, and the room went from uncomfortable to hostile in a microsecond.

            “You can’t do … you don’t have the—”

            “You want to tell me I don’t have the authority? Check the by-laws you all signed when you brought me into this position. If I don’t think it’s the right thing to do, it doesn’t get done. And I don’t think it’s right for a disciple of Jesus to stand up and pray with someone who believes in another god. To do so is to admit to idolatry, and worse, it’s a betrayal of everything Jesus suffered and died for. So no, while I’m Senior Pastor here, we’re not going to participate.”

            The group stood up and left the office. For the first time in a long time, Axel watched Ben lift his lip and heard a low growl as Borodine walked out of the office.

            The day’s drama wasn’t over … not by a long shot. On the way out for lunch, Axel happened to look into one of the side study rooms and saw the assistant pastor for spiritual formation sitting at a table with two women, one of which was holding a baby. The Spirit told him to stop and interrupt, so he pushed open the door.

            “We have an opening in two weeks,” Jason was saying—Jason being the aforementioned assistant pastor, who, as Axel remembered for some reason, was also the assistant pastor for new family orientation.

            “Two weeks is good,” said one of the women.

            “That’s fine,” said the other, tucking the edge of a blanket over her baby.

            “We really do find it open and accepting here,” the taller woman said to Jason.

            “That’s good to hear, Mia, thanks. The world out there, you know, it’s, well, it’s dead, spiritually, and we like to think we offer people here a powerful sense of being alive! And I can tell you two are definitely spiritual.”

            Axel lifted a hand, getting Jason’s attention.

            “Oh, hey, ladies, I’d like you to meet Axel Entréchat.” Axel noted that Jason hadn’t introduced him as the Senior Pastor.

            Both ladies turned and nodded professionally.

            “Axel, meet Nancy and Mia,” Jason said.

            “Ladies.” Axel turned to Jason. “What’s up?”

            “Oh, right, yeah, well, these ladies were just scheduling a christening for little Zoomba here,” Jason replied.

            “Good,” Axel answered. The Spirit prompted him to ask another question. “And will the father be coming?”

            The ladies looked at each other, and he could tell he’d thrown a stink bomb into the room.

            “Uh, no, I don’t think so,” Jason began.

            “We don’t know who the father is, actually,” Mia answered, seemingly more composed than young Jason appeared to be.

            While such an admission could be rooted in immoral or, worse, tragic circumstances, Axel wasn’t thinking that was the case.

            “So which one of you is, uh … the mother?”

            Nancy looked at Mia and Mia looked at Jason and when Jason didn’t say anything, Mia did. “We’re partners. Is that a problem?”

            “Partners?” Axel said, still not understanding.

            “Partners … yeah, like, you know, life partners, going through life together? Is that so hard to understand?” Mia asked with asperity.

            Axel paused, but only for a moment. “Not hard to understand at all—in the world. But this is a Christian church.” Axel saw Jason try and give him a wavy motion with his hand, trying to dissuade what the young man knew was coming next, but Axel was having none of it. “You two do know that God has said that homosexuality will put you in hell, right?”

            There came then some immediate bristling, this time from both women, and Jason looked like he wanted to crawl under a rock (which is, Axel was beginning to think, he belonged).

            “That’s offensive,” Nancy said, extremely chuffed.

            “It’s supposed to be,” Axel replied. “It’s supposed to be so offensive that maybe it will make you stop and think about where you’re headed, eternally. And you can’t tell me that your little kid there will have anywhere near the chance for a normal life a child would have in a normal home where there is a man and a woman, the way God intended families to be.”

            “Just who do you think you are?” Mia said, standing now, appearing to be quite irate. “Where do you get off, coming in here and lecturing us about the lifestyle choices we make. Our lives are our own, and no one, least of all, some … some farmer gets to tell us differently.”

            Axel didn’t reply. He looked at Jason. “You tell these ladies that if they’d like to come and talk to the Senior Pastor here about the spiritual and eternal ramifications of their homosexual lifestyle, he would be very happy to schedule an appointment. He would tell them that God loves them but requires that they come out of their sinful lifestyle. He would tell them that their life violates the critical symbology God has established so that all mankind can better understand Him in the institution of marriage between man and woman. And he’ll tell them that there won’t be any christening of little Zoomba there in this church.” He turned to go, Ben following at his heels. But he stopped and faced Jason again. “And on your way out, you can put your assistant pastor credentials in the bin, because you’re fired.”

            “Fired?” Jason asked, incredulous.

            “Yeah. Why should the church pay an assistant pastor of spiritual formation when the church will no longer have anything to do with spiritual formation? You’re lucky I didn’t know that darkness was even on the menu here. That satanic initiative is cancelled, as of this moment.”

            Mia shouted at him as he was leaving. “You can’t talk to us like that! You’ll hear from our lawyers! What kind of loving environment is this, anyway?” She rounded on Jason. “You said this church would accept us!” Jason stood there, stammering, speechless.

            “Come on, Ben,” Axel interrupted. “Let’s get out of this madhouse.” Ben followed his master.

            At the end of that day, just before he walked out to the truck to drive home, the phone rang.

            “Hey Axel, it’s Sheldon.” Sheldon was the Owner.

            “Sheldon, how’re you feeling?” Sheldon was somewhat north of 90 or so.

            “One day at a time, Axel, one day at a time.” Axel liked Sheldon a lot. Axel and his wife had had many rich times together before Axel’s wife passed away.

            “Hey, son, I’d ask you how things are going over there, but from all the emails I’m getting, I don’t need to ask, I know.”

            “Yeah, well, sorry about that.”

            “Nothing to be sorry about, son. We gave it a good try. More than most others would have done, I can tell ya. And you’ve done all I hoped you’d do there.”

            “They haven’t put an IED in your wheelchair yet, have they?” Axel asked.

            Sheldon laughed. “Not yet, old son, not yet, but that’s one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you.” Axel sensed Sheldon had something of import to say.

            “I’m done with the fellowship,” Sheldon began. “I’ve tried to call them to repentance, I’ve sent them pastors who tried to call them to repentance, who spoke to them about turning away from their love for the world, and they just have kept on—no, actually, they’ve gotten worse, and now I’m going to wash my hands of them all.”

            “What do you mean, Sheldon?”

            “I’m leaving, Axel. Done, wrappin’ up, and I’m selling the whole place, lock, stock, and barrel to Legree.”

            “Simon Legree!”

            “The very one,” Sheldon answered.

            “That guy has been your worst enemy since, well, I dunno, since I can remember you having the place.”

            “Ayuh,” Sheldon replied (Sheldon grew up in Maine and hadn’t lost his accent).

            “But Sheldon, that guy will absolutely chew these people up and spit them out. He’ll ruin this place! He’ll—” and then Axel paused and realized exactly what Sheldon was up to. “It’s what you want to happen, isn’t it?”

            “Now yer figurin’ it out, old son. It’s the very last thing I can do for ‘em. If they won’t hear the truth while they’re swimmin’ in the lap of luxury, then maybe they’ll cry out for it when they see what the life of a slave looks like.”

            Axel thought for a second. “Yeah, Sheldon, but you know as well as I do that they’re already living the life of a slave. They’re slaves to unrighteousness. They can’t help not sinning. They can’t stop.”

            “Yeah, well, you love the world, that’s how things are gonna end up, old son.”

            There was a pace of quiet on the line and then Axel spoke up. “Well, to tell you the truth, Sheldon, you sort of solved a problem for me. If you’re gone, I’m gonna be right behind you.”

            “You best do that very thing, Axel. You don’t wanna be within a hunnert miles o’ that place once Legree gits aholt of it.”

            After a long pause, Axel said, “Sheldon, that’s about the best news I’ve had all day.”

            “Always glad to help, Axel. Time is short. Like they say in Israel, ‘Lekh Lekha’. Time to get out.”

            “ ‘Close the door and let the indignation pass by,’” Axel quoted.

            “Couldn’t have said it better myself,” Sheldon replied.

            Axel laughed, because Sheldon actually had said that very thing.

            The last Sunday Axel was to preach at Mercedes Coach Lake Fellowship began like every other Sunday. The parking lot filled up with high-end cars. Well-dressed congregants filed into the church dressed in casual, high-end clothes from all the best outlet stores. Most remembered to set their phones to silent mode, and parents of teens reminded their charges to do so.

            Normally Axel would stand in the doorway and greet people as they came, but he wasn’t there that morning. Not too many people noted the change. They all came in and as they came through the vast entryway a few noses twigged, but it wasn’t until they came into the main sanctuary that they really noticed the bad smell. It was really bad. It was so bad it was cutting into business at the coffee bar. But appearances had to be maintained, and they soon became accustomed to it. Soon they were chatting away with each other, downing lattes, talking about the latest sports event, their business activities, their children, their parents, their friends—everything and everyone except God. As they entered the main sanctuary they noticed that there was a large sheet strung from one end of the stage to the other. They all wondered what might be behind the sheet. They looked with anticipation toward the assistant pastor for drama, who was usually responsible for staging plays and quick vignettes that taught spiffy spiritual truths, but she looked as clueless as everyone else.

            As the hour struck for the service to begin, Axel was still not to be found. Then Dresden Forbes stepped out from the wings and motioned for quiet. The crowd stilled.

            “I was asked to start a slideshow, and that’s all I know.” The crowd laughed politely at Forbes’ somewhat manufactured dilemma. “So, without further ado,” (more laughter), “here we go.” He made a dramatic gesture of pressing the button on the laptop sitting on the podium and the large screens scattered throughout the sanctuary came to life.

            There was at first an empty white page, then letters appeared.

“Hello. This is Axel Entréchat. I resign, effective immediately, as your Senior Pastor.”

After a minute of adjustment to this (frankly) welcome news, and a tremor of murmuring throughout the crowd, Forbes did as the slide directed, and the next slide appeared. Another white screen, then letters appeared.

“There is a large sheet in the middle of the stage. Take it down, then press the button to advance the slide.”

Four younger men scrambled from out of wings behind the stage curtains and began to pull down the sheet. The crowd saw two coffins, both fully open, and as the sheet came down, a fresh waft carried with it an even more intense stench of decay. They realized the source of the bad smell in the sanctuary. Some began to be offended, others irritated—this wasn’t what they were paying for with those huge tithes and offerings. Forbes pressed the button and the next slide appeared.

“You see two bodies on the stage. One has been expertly embalmed, tailored meticulously, and presented for viewing as though he were alive, but just sleeping. The other was delivered to the town’s morgue three days ago, and the mortician hasn’t gotten around to doing anything with it.”

Pictures of the dead bodies then appeared—the one bloated, facial features distorted, the corpse obviously decaying, dressed in filthy rags; the other appeared almost life-like, with composed features, as though he was sleeping comfortably, dressed in an expensive suit. More letters appeared.

“Advance the slide, Mr. Forbes.”

Forbes did so. The last slide appeared.

                                    “Both are dead.”

š›

“Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”

1 John 2:15

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