by Jay O'Toole
What we truly believe is demonstrated in lifestyle and in destiny. What result our words?
Pastor Joe never thought of himself as being proud, while keeping the daily rituals of the faith. He just thought he was being obedient. He had been "saved by grace through faith, plus nothing and minus nothing." Yet, the daily Christian walk was another thing entirely.
"After you 'get saved'," he would often preach from the pulpit, "You need to be baptized, then you need to read your Bible and pray every day! On top of that you need to make Heavenly sure, that you are in your place every Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night! If you really want to be right with The LORD, then you need to go out visitating with me every Thursday night from six to nine! When we have revival meetings oncest a quarter, then you need to be in your place for every night of the services, even if we hold 'em over past one week!"
Pastor Joe was "very sincere," he often told himself, but when it came to the doctrines of the faith, he might not always be right, but he was "never in doubt."
The mockingbird in the yard was trilling every song he knew as the gentle breezes helped Pastor Joe turn the pages in his onion-skin leafed Bible..
"What am I gonna preach, today, LORD! We gotta get 'em saved!"
The slight wind wafted a mixture of roses and gardenias under the nose of the smug minister. It was as if The LORD was shouting, "Lift their burdens, today, Joe. Let them smell sweetness. Tell them, 'By grace are you saved through faith and that not of yourselves. It is the gift of GOD, not of works, that way nobody can boast. For we were created in Christ Jesus to do good works.'"
"That's right!" Joe sat up straight in his Adirondack chair. "You are absolutely right, LORD! The roses and the gardenias are really sweet. That's what we have to look forward to in Heaven, but if these people don't 'get saved,' then they'll burn forever in Hell, where everything smells like a feed lot and a pulp mill!"
It's true, that Joe Vershan had grown up to be one of the regions Hell-hottest, fire-breathin'est preachers it had ever known, but in his defense, he came by it quite naturally. Occasionally, even he teared up as he thought back to his childhood.
"Joe, get back in that room and make your bed before you get one stitch of breakfast!" Mom was a stickler for Better Homes & Gardens, meaning that every inch of her home had better look like the magazine.
Five minutes later as Joe stood dutifully at attention beside the head of his bed, Mom walked through the door. "Do you call this a made-up bed? Just look at that wrinkle! I declare, Joe Allen Vershan, I think I have to remake your bed every day of your life! Can't you do anything right? What in Heaven's Name are you going to do, when you leave home and I'm not there to make-up your bed every day?"
"Live peacefully with a pile of bed-clothes in the middle of the bed...EVERY...day," he thought to himself, but he would never say those words, out-loud. His cheeks still stung from the last infraction,...whatever that was.
Another image flashed across Joe's mind, that made him wipe his eyes on his coat-sleeve.
"Where do you think you're going, lookin' like that, young man?" Mom had caught him and now he had to 'fess up.
"Well, Momma, I love you so much! I just thought, that since school is out for the summer in a week and since it is so hot, hot, hot, today, that I would wear my cut-off shorts and a T-shirt in order to be a little cooler." Joe had mustered every bit of mush and kindness he could think of...
"I appreciate your honesty, young man, but you thought WRONG!" Mom commanded. "You know your father is the preacher at the local FIRST Baptist Church, and we will not have our son going to school looking like a common street urchin! Up to your bedroom to change your clothes! MARCH!!!"
Joe opened his mouth to say something, but quickly shut it for fear of the ramifications of contradicting his mother.
Ten minutes later in a white shirt, matching tie, black pants and spit-polished Sunday-go-to-meeting shoes, Joe Allen Vershan headed for the front door to face the ridicule of his tenth-grade class. As he passed his mother, she cooed, "Now, that's my boy! Don't you forget it!"
"When will I ever have the right to choose for myself? When will I ever be considered competent to live as self-sustaining human being? When will I ever be allowed to 'grow up'? I'm fifteen years old...for crying out loud!!!" The screams reverberated "in the dome," but they never escaped the mouth.
Typical "women's libbers" were weaklings compared to Joe's mom. "Nobody in the church would ever believe me, if I told them how Mom treated her husband, the pastor, and her two sons behind closed doors! O, NO, Mom was the sweetest lady anybody in the world ever met...in public, but...at home...THAT...was a different story.
Joe's Mom had a sharp tongue and a shrill voice. She wielded both to shred, to manipulate, to keep the men in her life in their places. "Nobody's going to make off of me!" That was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Joe hated to see his Dad die of lung problems in his early seventies, "but at least Mom can't hurt him anymore with her caustic tongue."
Joe's Mom lingered for another fifteen years, often "taking it out on" Joe in the earliest of those years, but after Alzheimer's Disease started taking over, there was some relief for the family because she started to be a much more pleasant individual.
"O, well, that was then and this is now! Time to go get ready to give 'em Hell this morning! Maybe we can snatch some of them out of Hell before they reach the Eternal Day!"
"Please, open your Bibles this morning to Luke, chapter 16, verses 19 through 31. Stand for the reading of The Word of God out of respect for its Holy Author." Pastor Joe Vershan was especially excited to preach this sermon, today because he had always prided himself on being a no-nonsense, Hell-Fire & Brimstone preacher. "Somebody's gonna get saved, today or they're gonna split Hell wide-open!" he thought, nearly out-loud, sulfur pluming out of each nostril.
The congregation was exceptionally small, today, huddling in a mass on the last two rows of pews.
"I think the crowds would be larger, if Preacher Joe didn't have that infernal habit of posting his sermon titles on the marquee a week in advance," grumbled Barry Grimm under his breath. (Being the assistant pastor in a very Independent Baptist church was a lonely job and a severely "Yes Man!" position.)
"There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.
"These three verses show the problem we all have before we come to The LORD for our soul's salvation! To care more for self than for the needs of others is a terrible crime! It is truly worthy of an eternity of torment!" frothed Pastor Joe. "What a terrible thing it is to love your money and to hate or at least have a contemptuous lack of concern for your fellow man! That ol' rich man had way more than he needed let alone more than he could ever use, yet there he was fat and sassy in luxury, while poor ol' Lazarus laid out by the rich man's gate without enough food to eat, enough clothes to wear and not even proper care to wrap the oozing wounds on his body!
"The Lord loves you! He died on the cross! He was buried in the Garden Tomb, until the third day and then He arose from the dead to save each and every one of you! He will flat save yore life, but once He does, you will owe him every bit of your life because of a debt you will never be able to repay. It will not be hard to serve The Lord. After all He said in His Word, 'My yolk is easy and my burden is light.'
"However, you have to ask yourself today, 'Who do I belong to?' Jesus will save you, but once He does you belong to Him. The Apostle Paul declared in I Corinthians 6:19-20, (AKJV,) 'What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.'"
Joe grew more lathered by the minute, but what he didn't realize was that his 85-year-old ticker was taking a beating.
"Are you ready to get borned again this very morning? You aren't promised enough life to get into your car and to drive home to enjoy your lunch! You aren't promised to be able to hear the 'AMEN' of my last prayer this morning! You aren't promised to live five more minutes! You aren't promised to take your next breath! Why don't you run down to this altar, throw yourself on the mercy of Jesus, The Savior, and avoid splitting Hell wide-open?!!!
For emphasis Pastor Joe took three steps backwards. He wanted to get a good running start to slam the pulpit with all his might. "'And, behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be.'"
The last words the congregation got to hear that Sunday morning were these, "Behold, I come quickly;..." for his lifeless body landed in a heap behind the pulpit with a rather large, THUD!
Joe continued his sermon without so much as a stutter. "In Galatians 6:7 we read, 'Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.' (cough, cough) Barry, check the thermostat! I think the air conditioner just went out. Check the lights, too! Who turned off the lights? Barry! Barry! Barry, can you hear me? Please respond!"
"OW! What just started gnawing on my skin? Why is it so HOT? Where am I? Why can't I see? I NEED some answers!!!"
"Pastor Joe,..." said a low, raspy voice. "We've been expecting you. We have a wonderful accommodation waiting just for you. It costs you nothing extra, but it does come with the demand that you stay here forever. Hee, hee, hee...I borrowed that one from your sermon this morning."
“Now, just who the Hell do you think you are to keep me here against my will?”
“That’s pretty much how it works, Sir.”
“How what works?”
“We are the Hell,...and...THAT keeps you here against your will.”
“Under whose authority?”
“Under the Authority of The LORD of Glory, Whom you spent your entire career preaching with ‘Hell Fire & Brimstone’.”
“Like Hell he did!”
“O, Sir, we’re so glad you noticed.”
“For how long?”
“Well, Sir, if we may draw your attention to your own words taken from sixty-five years of sermon notes, you said and I quote, ‘If you don’t accept The Precious Blood of Jesus Christ as the Only propitiation for your every last sin, and if you don’t trust Him, today, then He will require your life of you at a moment, that you least expect it, and it will be everlastingly TOO LATE!’ By your own admission this is FOREVER!”
“Then, how did I get here? I don’t remember dying!”
“The moment you were waxing eloquent with the words, ‘...split Hell wide open!’ your old ticker skipped a beat, but your sermon didn’t miss a beat. You kept right on preaching after you said the words, 'Behold! I come quickly!' and you did and you kept on after you got here as though nothing had happened, until you noticed the heat.”
“Well, at first I didn't think much about it, because I was always complaining to Barry, my associate, who was, also, our man in charge of the physical plant, ‘It’s hotter than Hell in here!’ I just thought the AC went out, again.”
“Was it ever really hotter than Hell, Sir?”
“Not by a long shot…and Why do you keep calling me, ‘Sir’?”
“Well, you see, in life,...Marcie was my sister.”
“Did you ever read the Peanuts comic strip?”
“Marcie was the girl, who wore coke bottle glasses and who kept calling Peppermint Patty, ‘Sir.’”
“But that was a comic strip! It wasn’t real!”
“Yes, Sir, you are right! It was a comic strip and the characters in the comic strip weren’t real, but every character in the comic strip was based on someone in the life of the creator, Charles Schultz. Therefore, the real life Marcie was my sister. She really did wear coke bottle glasses.”
“What happened to her?”
“Well, Marcie doesn’t need the glasses any more.”
“She went to Heaven. She has a new body with perfect vision.”
“What about you? Why are you here?”
“I was one of those non-believers, that you used to rant about, and I did ‘split Hell wide open,’…Sir. I used to wear coke bottle glasses just like Marcie, but not any more.”
“Did you get a perfect new body, too?”
“No! When I got here I threw ‘em away!”
“I couldn’t see a damned thing, with or without them! By the way, did you ever care about the people you preached AT every Sunday morning? Or did you just like having a captive audience upon whom to spew your hatred and venom from your own despicable life?"
"You got me, and I'm sorry for what it's worth down here. Despicable, there. Hopeless, here. Horror of horrors!"
After a long silence, Barry approached the platform.
"'Behold, I come quickly!' he said. Well, whatever you may think of Pastor Joe, he was always about 'Truth in Advertising.' Wherever he was going, he got there quickly. Where do you reckon he went?
"I guess we best call the coroner.
"Anybody for Shoney's?
"By the way, next week's sermon will be titled, 'Grace is So Amazing!' After all, I'm your pastor now. I reckon I'll be preaching.
"No need for a final prayer today. I think Ol' Joe just gave us the best AMEN possible. Y'all are dismissed."