This week's "Friday Fiction" is being hosted over at "Patterings." So after you read my entry, drop by Patterings for the links to the other postings.
This is something I wrote back in 2006 (I can't believe it was that long ago!) It had originally been intended for the "Missionary" weekly challenge at FaithWriters, but I didn't get it edited down to the required size in order to submit it. So I posted it in the FaithWriters Critique Circle instead.
A Tale of Two Missionaries
The cursor blinks at me from my computer screen. The fluorescent light over my desk flickers. Down the hall I hear the fax machine spitting out yet another piece of paper for someone to file. Somewhere a phone jangles. Cars honk and sirens wail from twenty-two stories below me.
I wonder what it all means.
What’s the point of being stuck here? I come here to work and slave away for eight hours. Then I go home and work there too, or else I goof off. It doesn’t really matter what I do, does it? It’s all just going to repeat again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day, and the next day. Then when it’s all over I’ll die. I’ll turn to dust, and so will everyone else who knows me, and then no one will care that I ever existed.
Maybe none of this means anything at all, so why bother? Might as well just eat, drink, and be merry, right?
Man, why am I thinking such depressing thoughts? Shake it off, woman! What will the boss think if he catches me wasting my time like this? Focus!
The blinking cursor tracks my progress along the page. It has to keep backing up as I correct typos.
It’s so hard to concentrate when you know nothing matters.
Uh-oh, that religious lady from accounting is coming down the hall. Everybody calls her the Missionary, and the funny thing is, she seems to think it’s a compliment. I know it’s her because she’s whistling one of her stupid Jesus songs. If she wants to be a missionary, why can’t she go off to some jungle somewhere and leave us alone?
Whew, she passed by.
Don’t misunderstand. I don’t have anything against Jesus, but his followers are another story. Some of ‘em are okay, but a lot are just plain loony. And how do they get off calling themselves Jesus’ followers? Most of the time they don’t act one bit like him.
The Missionary is coming back. Sheesh, did she have to stop here now?
I try to look polite. “Yes?”
“Hi, how are you?”
(As if she really cares!) I’m fine, thanks. I’m busy right now. No time to chat, but maybe later, okay?”
I know exactly what she’s going to say when she leaves. Here it comes…
“Remember, Jesus loves you!”
Does she have to put on that ridiculous chirpy voice when she says that? If Jesus loves me, and she’s Jesus’ follower, how come I don’t feel like she cares? I know she only sees me as somebody to convert so she can get brownie points with God.
I have to get back to work. If this nonsense is what it takes to put food on the table, I’d better do it. I may only be headed for a coffin, but I don’t want to starve until I get there.
Good, that’s finally done and printed out. I’d better bring it to the boss or it’ll get buried under my next “to-do” pile.
Funny, the boss is a Christian too, but he’s not obnoxious about it. He really cares about people.
I walk in and place the papers on the boss’s desk. “Here’s the paperwork you wanted. I’m off to lunch.”
“So am I.”
Before I know it we’re walking down the hall together.
“You know,” I begin, “there’s something I’ve always wondered. How come you and the Missionary act so different? Aren’t you the same religion?” (I hope that didn’t come out wrong!)
The boss smiles. We arrive at one of the lunch room tables and he gestures to a seat. Of course he’s picked a table right next to other folks. He’s careful about not seeming too chummy with any of the women.
His wife’s a lucky lady.
Good thing the Missionary isn’t here.
The boss still hasn’t said anything, so I just shrug. “I guess it was a dumb question.”
“No, not at all! Actually, I’m glad when people ask me about my faith.” He takes a bite of his sandwich. “I can’t speak for the way anyone else acts, but I don’t mind talking about what I believe.”
“Well, leaving actions out of it, I guess your beliefs are kind of a mystery to me, too.” I take a swig of my calcium-enriched water. “I mean, no offense, but it just doesn’t make sense. The Missionary says that God is perfect and good, but then she says he killed an innocent person so that sinners could be forgiven. How can that be good? Any judge who ever did that would be thrown off the bench.”
The boss just nods.
I get bolder. “And she says that you don’t have to be good to go to Heaven. It’s like you guys can get away with anything because you believe a certain thing. The Missionary even said that ‘it’s all in who you know,’ like God is some kind of mob boss. Those who are ‘in’ can do whatever they please, and those who are ‘out’ get destroyed, and the ‘in’ people are just as bad as the ‘out’ ones. That’s not the way the Missionary puts it, but it amounts to the same thing, doesn’t it? And the whole crazy thing about Jesus dying on a cross doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere. What does that have to do with me?”
The boss finishes off one sandwich half and picks up the other one. “I absolutely agree with you.”
I blink hard a couple of times. That’s not the answer I expected.
The boss smiles a little. I think he knows he surprised me.
I realize that our part of the lunchroom has gotten very quiet. Out of the corner of my eye I can see people watching us. I dig into my sandwich again and leave the conversation in the boss’s hands.
He wipes his mouth with a napkin and sits back in his chair. “I’m afraid that a lot of people have that view of Christianity, and with good reason. It’s what a lot of churches teach. But it’s not what the Bible teaches.”
“Then where do they get that stuff?” I ask.
“Sometimes I think Christians don’t even realize how they’re presenting their case. They don’t really listen to themselves and realize how it sounds, how unjust the God they’re describing would really be. They may have a more accurate understanding, but what they’re communicating is quite different. It would horrify them if they knew how people take their words. I know, because that’s how I used to explain things, until someone let me hear my own words back from their point of view. I had to do some serious re-thinking, believe me.”
He rested his elbows on the arms of his chair and steepled his fingers together. “In other cases the people may know exactly what they’re teaching, but that’s okay with them because it’s what they actually believe. It’s a tragic misunderstanding of what the Bible is all about.”
You could have heard a toothpick drop right about now.
“You want to know what the Bible really teaches?” he asks.
I nod and lean back in my chair. This could take a while.
“The Bible tells us that we are all born into slavery. Our chains are sin, and our master is the enemy of our souls, commonly called the Devil.”
I raise my eyebrows at him. Does he really believe in the Devil?
“Yes, there’s a Devil,” he says to my skeptical brows. “He doesn’t have horns or pitchforks or red long johns, but he’s a real spiritual being.”
“Okay, maybe. Go on.” I guess I might be willing to buy into that a little bit, at least for the sake of argument.
“This slavery has been passed down from generation to generation since the first human beings. It’s a spiritual problem, and it needs a spiritual solution. You can’t buy your way to spiritual freedom with gold or silver. The currency here is life itself.”
That sounds as depressing as my earlier thoughts in my office. Maybe even worse.
“We’re in a real mess,” the boss continues, “because the only way we could redeem our own sinful souls would be to give a life in exchange, and frankly, we don’t have the kind of life it takes. A sinful life can’t foot the whole bill. The price is too high.”
This is getting kind-of creepy, so I go on the offensive. “I see where this is heading. Jesus died to pay for our sins, right?” It still doesn’t make any sense to me, but that’s got to be his point.
“Nope.” The boss smiles again at my confusion. “If someone pays for something, it’s because he wants to own that thing. God doesn’t want to own our sin. He wants to own us. He paid for us with the currency of a perfect life, one that had the power to handle the sins of the whole world and still come back to life when he was through.”
This is a lot to wade through. I probably look as clueless as I feel.
“Jesus died to purchase us back for our rightful master, God. If he had bought us just to ‘turn us loose’ as you said, then we would continue sinning and become slaves to sin all over again. But he didn’t do that. He bought us so we could belong to Him, and that’s the best fate that our souls could ever have.”
“Okay…and being good doesn’t have anything to do with it?”
The boss sat forward in his seat. “Humans have only two possible masters…God and Satan. We can’t be our own masters, because our natural sinfulness would put us right back in Satan’s clutches in a heartbeat. We’re born as slaves to the Devil, but God is willing to buy us back to himself. He’s already paid the price, but he only wants willing subjects. Are you someone who wants to be bought by God, to belong to him?”
I feel like he’s putting me on the spot, and I really don’t like that. I hear chairs scraping and people murmuring as they get up to leave, but some are still staying to listen.
The boss isn’t through. “If you want to sin freely, you won’t choose God as your master. You have the right to refuse his offer to purchase you, but the consequences are grave. And he’s not interested in cutting any kind of deal that simply pays for your sins and gets you off the hook to live as you please. People who think they have that kind of bargain are in for a shock. He wants people. He wants you. You are what he paid for. If you belong to him, he’ll work on your heart so that sin will become less and less appealing to you. You don’t belong to him by being good, but if you belong to him, he’ll make you better and better.”
“So you’re better than everybody else, is that it?” someone calls from the next table.
“I don’t claim to better than anyone else,” the boss replies. “The only human being I have a right to compare myself with is the ‘old me,’ the person I was before I belonged to Christ. I know I’m better than he was, but only because of God. I can’t take any credit for it.”
He glances at his watch and stands up. “I have to get back.” Then he looks directly at me, as if none of the others even exist.
“The question is, which master do you want to belong to?” Then he smiles just a little and heads back out the way we came in.
After a few moments I get up too. I have plenty of work waiting for me in my office.
The cursor on my computer still blinks at me. My fluorescent light still flashes. Phones and faxes still do their things. Traffic still rushes below.
It’s still hard to concentrate, but this time it isn’t because of what doesn’t matter. It’s because of what does.
Which master do I want?