“I know a man in Hell now.” That’s what the Preacher should have said if he were honest. But no one wanted an honest preacher today. Instead he talked of the good parts of the man’s life, how generous, and kind and caring he was, and what a shame it was he died young–all the things everyone wanted to hear. Old women daubed their eyes and a young lady softly whimpered.
The funeral home was unbearably warm, the small room packed. The preacher loosened his neck tie for the third time and talked of heaven and angels, hoping no one noticed the abrupt transition. He didn’t say the man was there, exactly, but he didn’t say he wasn’t there either. Best to let people think he might be.
“Nicely done, Pastor.” The deacon etched with wrinkles deep as the stains on the nursery floor carpet shook his hand. “I know it’s been hard on everyone, you especially. You did your best. Better to leave it open, right? You can never know for sure, so it was right wise of you not to guess. There’s no good in going down that road.”
“Yes, better not to guess.” The Preacher nodded.
A hundred handshakes later, he turned on a light in his home. Dark, still, quiet. Alone with his thoughts like a Preacher often is–alone, except for a second lonely face on the mantle staring back at him.
“I held your hand until the end,” he said aloud. “I offered the gospel to you one last time. I know what words were carried on the breath that cleaved your soul.”
The Preacher was face to face with the portrait now. The youth’s roguish smile mocked from the wooden frame: “To Hell with your silly lies.”
Sudden anger snatched the mocking smile and shattered it on the dark wood floor. The Preacher picked up the shards and crushed them in his time-worn hands, hands that have held firm twenty other shaking, bed-ridden hands on the brink of eternity. Now it was his own hand shaking, his own hand broken, and still the tears wouldn’t come.
The clock’s red numbers flashed 3:00 a.m. He was calling him. “Daddy? Daddy, my stomach hurts.” His little voice wavered in fear. It must hurt really badly for him to brave the dark.
The Preacher flipped the bedside lamp on and the covers off. “It’s okay, son, I’m coming. I’m here, don’t be afraid.” The Preacher was in the empty hall before he remembered. He shivered and turned back. The darkness swallowed his shadow and his memory together. He reached to turn off the bedside lamp but saw his little boy’s face again. The same roguish smile from the mantle looked up at him, but this time between a reflection of his own younger self and the wife he buried several years past.
“Don’t say you didn’t love me.” The face said. “Of all the lies you’ve ever told, the worst lie is the one you’re telling yourself right now.”
The Preacher snuffed out the lamp’s light and sank down on the edge of the bed to pant breathless in the dark.
The congregation murmured about the Preacher’s eyes. They still burned with their usual fire as he pummeled the pulpit and proclaimed the judgement to come, but the fire in his eyes cast a shadow beneath them this Sunday. The dark bags betrayed the dark nights.
The pews were packed but the Preacher had eyes for one only. His sermon was like none he had ever preached before. His whole life, his whole ministry, funneled into one delivery. Men chorused hearty Amens, women whispered, “What passion! What conviction!,” children trembled in their seats–still the Preacher’s gaze remained fixed at the back. One by one, curious members turned and followed his eyes. Most were surprised to see only an empty wooden chair off by itself in a remote corner. But one woman knew.
She hobbled on her cane to the Preacher after the service. In a voice crackling from frequent use over a long lifetime, she told him, “You are a fine preacher, sonny, but even you can’t preach the dead to life.”
The Man of God flushed scarlet, “But isn’t that the Will of God?”
The sharp eyes unmasked unspoken thought, “Yes, and it’s also the mystery of God.”
The cemetery is vacant when its solitary visitor wanders in.
The Preacher’s polished dress shoes drift through mud where Sheol thrusts stone-carved receipts of her claims up through the earth’s skin.
Dead silence wrings living words from the dumbed messenger of God.
He flings the mortal word into eternity and listens for the echo of its fall.
He gains boldness from the silence and adds more wind to his speech.
“Why does the grave shout while Heaven is silent?”
“Why…why am I the one standing here above the fresh-turned earth and not him?”
“Why was mine the pulpit and his the scoffer’s chair?”
“Why does he burn while I breathe life?”
“God of Mercy, why did You not show Your love to him as You did to me?”
“Why him…why me…why You?”
A sudden chill prompts him to hug his coat tighter.
Does the Preacher know he stands naked before his Maker?
Words, instead of clothing Thought, undress his soul.
And though the Maker appears silent, His words have long since descended from Heaven and now echo round the globe. He who has an ear, let him hear.
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
“Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?
–Do you love me more than you love those buried here?”
–And the Man of God was grieved that He said to him a third time, “Do you love me?”–
“Is your love for him greater than mine?
Is your justice purer than mine?
Would you show greater mercy than Mercy incarnate
if you’ d been given the judgement seat instead?
Is your faith, oh child, so frail that you trust me with your own soul but not others’?”
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”
Tell me if you have understanding,
Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?
Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?
Declare, if you know all this.”
What is left for the Man of God to say?
Would he answer back to God?
Nay, the Man of Dust joins muddy shoes with muddy knees.
“Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”
“Rest in peace, my child.”
Thus the Spirit ministers to the minister as he drifts off to sleep in his bed that Sabbath night.
“Not one sermon you preached was preached in vain.
Not one prayer you prayed was prayed in vain.
Not one soul you loved was loved in vain.
I AM perfect Justice.
I AM perfect Love.
I AM who I AM–that is all the answer your soul needs.
So…rest in peace.”