Saturday, October 28, 2017

An Ode to Jonah


Old Jonah lived in old Gat Hefer
Back in Israel’s days of yore.
He preached and spoke as Jehovah’s prophet
Doing happily every chore…
‘Till the message came: “Rise and journey east
To the gates of Ninevah the Great.
Cry against their sin; tell them God has heard
Of their evil, wickedness and hate!”

So Jonah rose, but fled away
From the presence of the Lord of heav’n.
Down to Joppa’s shore, then to sail away
To Tarshish soon his fare was giv’n.
“Never shall I go to those Ninevites,
Wretched enemies of all I know!
But my home I’ll make on the coast of Spain…”
Thought the prophet as he stole below.

God hurled a wind, a frightful gale
On the calm Mediterranean Sea.
Jonah’s ship was tossed and battered sore,
Thinking, “This shall be the death of me!”
With waves so high, the sailors cried
To their idols, golden, wooden, stone…
Casting off their goods to the raging sea,
All were fearing that their lives were done!

The captain roused sleeping Jonah up:
“Call quickly, sleeper, on your God!
Do you not care that we are perishing?
This is no time to drowse and nod!
Perhaps these lots will reveal the culprit
Whose guilt has brought this beastly storm.
Maybe chance will point out the one to blame;
The one this storm-god means to harm!”

When Jonah drew the shortest straw,
The sailors questioned him with fright:
“O tell us, please, what and who you are,
Where you hail from and what is your plight!”
So Jonah knew that his flight was over;
He’d been overtaken by his God.
A rebellious child of the Lord of heaven,
He prepared his soul to feel God’s rod.

“I serve and fear the God who made
The earth and heaven, sea and land.
I ran away from His holy presence
But I never could escape His hand.
Because of me has the tempest come;
God demands my life be sacrificed.
Come, cast me out into the sea--
For the Lord demands I pay the price.”

The kindly sailors rowed and strained
Against the shrieking, blasting wind,
But finally prayed to Jonah’s God
For pardon if perchance they’d sinned…
For overboard they let him go,
Throwing Jonah into waters deep.
And the waves grew still as the prophet said,
So they humbly sacrificed a sheep.

Down Jonah sank, a guilty soul,
And the seaweed wrapped and held him fast.
Yet, God still loved and planned to use
This erring child with sin-stained past.
He’d loved him with the threat’ning storm
Sent as easily as one could wish…
And now, as Jonah despaired of life,
God loved Him with a saving fish.

In the fish’s belly Jonah prayed,
Thanking God for sending help so rare.
Three days and nights the man of God
Composed and memorized his prayer.
“Up out of the grave You brought me, Lord,
And toward your temple call I now
Salvation surely is Yours to grant;
Give me liberty to keep my vow!”

Old Jonah got his second chance
Once the fish had given up his catch…
For the prophet learned that to challenge God,
Anyone would find he’d met his match!
“Go to Ninevah, and preach my word,”
Came the urgent call from God again.
And Jonah went, for it’s best to say
“Yes” to God--no matter where, or when.

MNA
10/28/2017

Somebody Needs a Storm


Those of us who are parents have often had to deal with stubborn, disobedient children. Unless your son or daughter was truly a little angel and never needed correction, at times you had to take drastic measures to get their attention and get them to comply with your wishes.

But whether you had to speak sternly, stand them in a corner, paddle their behinds, take away some toy or privilege, send them to their room without supper, or some other unpleasantness, hopefully, your discipline was given out of a heart of love for that child. Because true love for your child must teach that child to obey.

In the story of Jonah, we meet a prophet, a divine messenger, a man of God, who became the ultimate disobedient child.

Most people easily identify Jonah as the man who got swallowed by the big fish. But we’re not going to get that far in our message today. Today I want to talk about the path that led up to that “whale of a tale.” Namely, Jonah’s disobedience and God’s surprising response.

But let’s begin by learning a bit about our Brother Jonah. Interestingly, the name “Jonah” means “dove.” And the name of his father, “Amittai,” means “faithful.” Can you think of the first time a dove is mentioned in the Bible? Right: it was when Noah released a dove from the ark to find out if the waters of God’s flood judgment had subsided, or dried up.

I think it is kind of ironic that, many years later, some sailors would throw a man called “dove” out into a turbulent sea in order to calm the storm. Sometimes Biblical names have more hidden meanings than we notice on the surface!

Anyway, Jonah was called to be a prophet during the reign of the Israelite King Jeroboam the Second. And unlike many of the Israelite prophets, Jonah had good news for his people. He foretold that Jeroboam’s reign would prove prosperous and that the king would expand the northern kingdom of Israel almost to where it had extended during King Solomon’s reign. Of course, two other prophets, Joel and Amos, prophesied that Israel would later be judged for its sins of idolatry and immoral activities, and would be defeated and taken into exile by the Assyrian armies. But this threat was still a long way off. So Jonah was probably content and happy to be giving positive messages to his people.

Have you noticed, though, that God’s goal isn’t just limited to making His children happy and contented? There are times He gives us unpleasant duties to perform. There are periods of hard labor, grief, frustration and boredom that He arranges for His children. We are called to deal with things and people we would rather not deal with. And all of these can be stormy situations, but situations God believes are necessary in our lives. This became the case with our man Jonah.

The Lord didn’t choose to leave Jonah just basking in the sunshine of his comfortable life there in Israel. Instead, He sent a message to him: “Get up and go to Ninevah, that great city, and cry out against it, for their sins have come up before Me.”

In Jonah’s mind, this was like seeing dark, angry stormclouds encroaching on his sun-shiny life! Ninevah was one of the Assyrians’ chief cities. The Assyrians were Israel’s bitter enemies. They had conquered the Arameans decades before, and had forced Israel to pay them tribute. Joel and Amos predicted that these same people would one day come and punish Israel for its own sins, killing thousands and leaving destruction in their wake. So, to Jonah, cutting off his own arm would be preferable to traveling all the way to hated Assyria to warn the wicked Ninevites that God was angry about their sins! LET God be angry with them. LET God punish THEM! Surely, that’s what was in the prophet’s heart when he received this troubling command.

So, Jonah got out his map and planned his journey. Not TO Ninevah, as God had ordered...but in the opposite direction. “Now,” he thought, “where is the most far-off destination I’ve ever heard of? A place where God would have trouble finding me and bringing me back from? Ah, yes. Tarshish, that’s it. Tarshish is way out west across the Great Sea on the coast of Spain. First, I’ll ride my donkey down to Joppa. This is the season for sailing. Ships leaving to take olive oil and other exports across the Sea. Surely there’s a ship that’s going in that direction.”

Well, I have to ask: Have you or I ever thought in similar ways? Have we ever had a clear idea of some task God expected us to do, but proceeded to do the opposite? How did we justify our disobedience? Did we say to ourselves, “After all, I’ve obeyed all the rest of God’s commands pretty faithfully. Bending this one really isn’t that serious. There are OTHER people I’d rather share the gospel with than THAT difficult person. So, I’ll go and speak to them instead. If God REALLY wants me to do this difficult task, He’ll ask me again when I’m older...or smarter...or stronger...or better able to deal with it. And after all, God is gracious and understanding. He’ll forgive this ONE sinful choice, won’t He?”

The Prophet Jonah, a man of God, surely knew better than to say “NO!” to his Master. But even men of God are fallen, sinful human beings. We forget that sometimes. We forget that even the most upright, virtuous, well-taught, experienced Christians can stumble and fall, making very unloving, un-Christlike choices. The greatest Bible heroes of the faith all had their areas of sin and weakness, blind spots in their characters, nasty habits that were hard to break. David was a murderer and an adulterer when he took Bathsheba for his wife. Peter was a liar and a coward and a blasphemer when he denied that he knew Jesus our Lord. The Apostle Paul wrote often in his epistles that he needed his readers to pray for him. In James chapter 5 we read “Therefore, confess your sins to each other, and pray for one another that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” So, when you pray, don’t forget to pray for your pastors and other spiritual leaders. They are often asked to do very daunting tasks and they need our prayers, support and encouragement, day by day, week by week, year by year.

Well, Jonah, God’s disobedient child, was on the run. In effect, he was telling the Lord in no uncertain terms, “I’m handing in my Prophets Card, I’m definitely NOT going to Ninevah, and nobody is going to MAKE me go there!” He was throwing down his gauntlet and DARING God to take action. In a way, you have to admire Jonah’s audacity and guts. Challenging the Almighty is worse than challenging an exploding volcano, or a deadly hurricane. Apparently, Jonah would rather DIE than obey the Lord’s command--a command he violently disagreed with.

Now if you or I were the Lord, how would we have responded? “Fine. I’ll just let you go. If you’re too stubborn to follow orders, I can find dozens of others who’d be happy to take your place.” OR: “I’ll just send you a heart attack and kill you on the spot. That’ll show you!” OR: “I’ll just reach into your little mind and give you a slight attitude adjustment toward the Ninevites. That way, you’ll be happy to go preach to them.” There are many ways God could have responded to Jonah’s rebellion.

But He chose to send a STORM. A mighty wind which He hurled upon the sea.

What did this storm accomplish in Jonah’s life? What do the storms in our own lives accomplish when God chooses to send them? Are they really necessary? Do they really work?

Storms REVEAL GOD’S POWER.
Storms REMIND OF GOD’S PERSONALITY.
Storms RESULT IN GOD’S PURPOSES.

In the book of Job, chapter 38, the Lord answers Job “out of the whirlwind.” He begins to question his servant Job with dozens of probing questions Job cannot answer. “Do you know this? Can you do that? Can you find out those things that only God knows and is capable of? In a way, whirlwinds and hurricanes and thunderstorms are vivid symbols of God’s awesome POWER. Man has always dreamed about being able to control the weather. The old joke says: “Everyone TALKS about the weather, but, funny, no one ever DOES ANYTHING about it.” When we are faced with gathering stormclouds and screeching winds, we are reminded that we are at the mercy of powers over which we have NO CONTROL. And behind all of those earthly powers stands the omnipotent power of a holy GOD.

When God responded to Jonah’s rebellion by sending a storm, He was saying: “Here, my child. This is the power of the Person you are dealing with. Have you forgotten who made the heavens and the earth? Forgotten who made YOU? There are many sources of power in our universe: the burning fusion of the sun and the stars. The incredible heat under our feet that erupts in fissures and volcanic eruptions. The thundering of Niagara Falls that is harnessed to mammoth generators that create electricity. Nuclear reactions that can either light up our homes, or destroy our cities with hydrogen bombs. All these forces are available because of an all-powerful Creator. We must never forget that this Power of all powers is the One who holds our very lives in His hand!

The pagan mariners who manned the ship Jonah sailed upon were well aware of this powerful deity, although they didn’t actually know exactly WHO it was. They cried out, each to his own god, fearing for their lives. Because, in the sense of the original Hebrew language, “the ship was considering breaking up.” The gigantic waves of God’s storm were battering the ship so badly that there were no ATHEISTS on board that day! Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are none on a doomed sailing ship at the mercy of a raging sea.

These sailors were praying to the wrong gods, but at least they were PRAYING. Somehow they had the awareness that this storm was PERSONAL. Perhaps it had come suddenly and without warning. Maybe it was not the season for severe storms, so they realized this one must have some divine purpose behind it. Just like them, Christians need to be reminded that God is a divine PERSON. Storms can remind us that God can be angered. He can be grieved and He IS grieved when we sin against Him! Although God never loses control of His anger the way WE do, He is not just some imperturbable FORCE that we can choose to either plug into or to ignore at our whim. This all-powerful Creator is a Person who loves, cares, grieves, and displays His wrath when sinners refuse to repent of their rebellion.

And where was the rebellious Jonah? While the crew of the ship were praying and casting the cargo overboard to lighten the ship, Jonah was asleep. Yes, he was in the lowest part of the ship, perhaps continuing to avoid his duty by escaping into dreamland. This is something most of us will be familiar with. Instead of seeking to love our neighbors and grow in God’s grace as He has commanded us, we are glued to our televisions or have our heads and hearts buried in the pleasures of this world. We escape into dreamland and try to avoid the unpleasant duties God has assigned to us. There are definitely times when the Lord rightly brings harsh storms into our lives to shake us out of our sinful slumbers and make us face the reality of His purpose for us!

And what was God’s purpose for the sleeping Jonah? To be a spokesman for His God. This was a purpose that the Lord was not prepared to abandon. Not in Jonah’s life, and no, not in our lives either. If we read on in the book of Jonah, we’ll find that God will have His way with His children, even if He has to correct us, WITH A STORM.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Clouds


I’ve seen them a fleet of well-built ships
on blue Mediterranean vastness
and parading like rose-coated floats down
an avenue crisscrossed by trails
as straight as cadet revues.

They’ve winked at me slothfully
down from their starry perches
as they play furtive games
with a lazy gibbous moon.

Oft they become a boiling army
dropping their vapors, bullets, bombs
to the crashing crescendo
of bright brass, percussion and wind
causing the bravest to flee.

But later, suing for peace,
they raise their varicolored flags
across the storm-scrubbed horizon,
sharing their triumph with the world.

MNA
10/5/2017


Sunday, August 13, 2017

Beloved Law

How I love Your law, my Savior!
Your commands have set me free!
Love for God, and for my neighbor,
Now have gained a home in me.
New life You created in me--
Took away my heart of stone.
Great the price You paid to win me
And to claim me as Your own!

In Your laws I see the image
Or Your perfect holiness,
And my mirrored, sinful visage
Causing me such sore distress!
Yet the new heart You have planted
Longs to run in paths of right;
Thirsts for streams I never wanted--
Duty now is my delight.

Under law, My Lord, You entered
As a man into this earth,
Stooped obediently and conquered
Sin and death, and bore our curse!
Now, arisen and ascended,
Your full righteousness is mine--
Reckoned to those You befriended
By our Father’s grand design.

Given by our loving Father,
Ten Commandments for our good
Tell us how to love each other,
How to love God as we should.
Never harsh, no, not a burden--
“Perfect law of liberty”;
Making earthly joys more certain--
Picturing what Heav’n shall be!

Worship God--there is no other;
Make no image of His face.
Always hold His name in rev’rence;
Set apart His day with grace.
Honor fathers and your mothers.
Keep these laws, and spread abroad
To all nations, sisters, brothers,
Your devotion to our God!

Cherish life and do no murder;
Guard and keep each marriage vow.
Do not steal, respect all borders;
No dishonest words allow.
Be content and covet nothing
But to do your neighbor good.
With these laws and Heaven’s blessing,
You’ll be living as you should.

MNA
8/13/2017

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Life Together


You and I...
It was how we began,
in a glade where fellowship flourished,
in a workplace where tasks were wondrous
and time was marked by gold meanderings.

You and I...
And the maiden you made
to reflect every pleasure you planned
while you felt my aching aloneness...
so together we gladdened your garden kingdom.

You and I...
We were sundered apart
by a serpent, a tree, and a sword,
gaining knowledge that never made wise
neath a firmament colored with clouds of fury.

You and I...
Like Beauty and Beast,
I longed to rob you of rights and riches,
giving nothing but tears in return...
but no beast has power to break your promise.

You and I...
Loving, Hunting, Calling
in wilds where the curses clamored,
where echoes taunted mid twisted roots
of woods overgrown with the groans of ages.

You and I...
In a rage I rose up,
roared with joy as the Seeker was slain...
But you had always been the fertile Seed
that replanted the Garden Home--for You and I.

MNA
1/5/2017

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

He Didn't Belong

The break-room was packed, as usual. Our table was one of the more integrated ones, ‘cause the people in our work group liked each other. Unlike a lot of the other teams, ours had worked long enough together to know and care about the other guy. I look back now on what happened, and figure that our gang’s closeness helped to explain why ours was chosen. By him.

We had a couple of gals, a few Hispanics, three blacks and an Asian guy. The group leader, Maurice, was white like me, as was his number two man, Barney. Barney got a lot of kidding, resembling the bumbling deputy on the old black and white sitcom, but he was as highly skilled as they come, rivaling Maurice as an expert assembler. To be honest, our team enjoyed it when Maurice had time off, since his assistant was a bit easier to please and to deal with.

That day we were all there, with no absentees, not just out of company gung-ho, but because it was the day after a holiday and workers who missed a time punch after a holiday forfeited their holiday pay. Anyway, the break-time was two thirds over, and conversation was beginning to lull when a couple of us saw him.

Jan and I noticed him first, crossing the room from the entrance closest to the adjoining men’s john. Jan’s a cute blonde, divorced and a little sassy, with dark brown eyes that don’t miss much, especially any new male arrivals at our plant. She and I’d been laughing at a meme on my phone when I caught her glance wandering. Following her glance I watched the guy she’d fastened on as he breezed by three other tables and exited the break-room by the door opposite the one he’d entered by. “Who is that?” she said. “Never seen him before.”

The guy had looked familiar. But I shook my head at her. “Me neither,” I said. Now that he was out of sight, for some reason it was hard to remember his face. But I did recall that his clothes looked a bit too hip and casual for a factory. He hadn’t paused to speak to anyone, and nobody seemed to notice or acknowledge him either. Of course, there were office people who dressed in less grungey attire than line workers, but they were well-known and recognizable. Not like this newcomer.

He was definitely out of place. But after all, it was none of our business, whoever he was.

The next time I saw him I was busy working on the line. Maurice had switched me to a job Barney usually handled, since he was down the line correcting an earlier mistake. I was looking around for a tool someone had borrowed when I noticed the out-of-place man. He was standing in a walkway with one hand in his pocket, the other on his hip. His eyes were moving across his line of vision, taking in the activity of our group, not quite focusing on any one worker.

A feeling of weird foreboding washed over me. I took three steps over to where Maurice was inputting on the group’s computer terminal and tapped his arm. “Whattaya need?” he asked, his eyes on the monitor.

“Something’s bugging me,” I told him, and he turned and raised his eyebrows quizzically. I looked across the line and pointed at the guy’s retreating back. “Who is that? Is he a new office worker or what?”

Maurice surprised me. He’s been at our company over twenty years and I assumed anybody new would have been introduced at the daily leadership huddle. But Maurice slowly shook his head. “Must be a visitor with today’s tour group or something.”

“But,” I protested, “I saw him in the break-room two days ago. Jan saw him, too. He just seems to hover around, never speaking to anyone. He was watching our group just now.”

“If it bothers you, why don’t you go ask him who he is? Did he look dangerous or something?”

I felt a little embarrassed. “No, not really, but it just gave me a funny feeling--like the guy   doesn’t belong here.”

“Uh huh. Hey, did you find that monobolter you were looking for?” I told him yes and went back to the job I’d been doing. If Maurice wasn’t concerned about our Mr. X, who was I to care about him?

Later that afternoon, the Asian guy Kenny was passing by my station, going after some fasteners when he asked me, “Hey, did Maurice know who that man was, watching us like that?” I stopped working and put down my tools, kinda relieved that somebody else was showing some curiosity about our mystery man.

“You’ve noticed him too, Kenny?” Kenny nodded. I said, “Naw, Maurice didn’t know and that’s really weird ‘cause he knows everyone. Maybe you and I can ask around and find out?” Kenny nodded again and moved off toward the fastener shelves. I glanced up at the clock. Ten minutes to four, so it was time to start cleaning up my area.

Soon, Jan came over with a shovel to hold while I swept my pile of debris into it. She had a knowing grin on her face as she whispered, “I got something to show you on my phone.”

“Cool,” I said. “I’ll meet you out at your car.”

We both swiped out at the time clock and made our way to the scorching parking lot. Seated in her pickup with the AC blasting, we got our heads together to view what she’d recorded on her smartphone. Just as I’d suspected, she showed me a video of the strange visitor, or at least I assumed it was him, since his back was turned toward the camera. At intervals the view was blocked by sections of shelving, so it was clear that Jan had been hiding to get her footage.

The man in the video was observing our work team as he’d been before, but that wasn’t all he was doing. From time to time he moved his hands in an odd way, with his palms facing outward and shifting back and forth, then in little circular patterns, as if he were cleaning a window pane.

I watched the recording with my mouth hanging open, totally speechless. Jan commented, “Isn’t that bizarre? Now wait...there’s more.” On the screen, I watched as the man relaxed his arms and hung them limply at his sides, then slowly turned around in Jan’s direction. I expected the video to end abruptly but it didn’t. The man took several smooth, even steps toward the camera, staring into the lens with a completely blank expression. Then he opened his mouth.

“Tell him I am not entirely pleased.” The words came out clearly, with no emotion or inflection of any kind. The man blinked twice, turned to his left with military smartness, and walked away, followed by the view of the camera, ‘til he was out of sight.

“Wow,” I said finally. “And I thought I was curious about him. What put it into your head to video the guy? When he spotted you, why didn’t you stop or run or something?”

“It was strange,” Jan answered. “I was on my way back from the restroom when I spotted Mr. Whosis doing his thing. I had been checking messages in the john, so I had my phone with me and just started shooting, like by instinct or something. Then, once I’d started recording, I found it almost impossible to stop. As if it was what I was meant to do. When Whosis turned around I felt frozen. Not by fear, so much...just a sense that I had to know what he’d do or say.”

“‘Tell him I am not entirely pleased,’” I quoted. “Jan, what do you imagine that could mean? Who are you supposed to tell it to? And what is the guy not pleased about?”

Jan gave me a look, half annoyed, half amused. “You tell me,” she said. “I’m showing you this thing because I had the strong impression that his message was for you.”

“You had a strong impression...? Are you sure it wasn’t indigestion or PMS or something? Why in the world would he send me a message in your video? Why not just walk up and speak to me? I have no idea who he is or what he’s doing here! Do any of your strong impressions answer any of those questions?”

“Nope. Sorry.”

I left Jan, feeling a bit shaken. I sat in my own car as the AC revved up and turned the odd facts over in my head. Knowing the front office would be open until five, I drove around to the visitor lot and strolled on into Human Resources, hoping for a few answers. Did they have any new Quality Control people or executive staff who might be observing workers on the line? Did they know of any customers who’d been given the freedom to check out the plant unsupervised? Any new tall, thin, casually dressed guys with medium brown hair that they knew of?

The answers were all “no.” When I suggested they try and track down such a person, especially in the vicinity of our group’s work zone, HR promised to let Security know of my concern. I was about to tell them about Jan’s video of the out-of-place man, but stopped myself. Using one’s phone during production was verboten, and I didn’t want to get my friend in trouble.

Returning to my car, I was surprised to find a sheet of paper stuck under my driver-side wiper. Written upon it in precise magic marker lettering was the message: STILL NOT FULLY PLEASED.

Frantically I spun around, taking in the view of the parking lot, eager to spot the note’s author. But I was the only person within my scope of vision. Just to be sure, I took a jog around the lot, between all the rows of remaining vehicles, searching for someone who could have witnessed the person leaving the note on my car. No luck. Defeated and tired, I drove home.

Next day, I made it a point to check with Kenny, whether he’d come up with anything new about Mr. X. Turns out he’d questioned around a dozen people, none of whom had any idea who Kenny was talking about. Apparently, the men and women in our work group were the only ones deemed worthy to be aware of our misplaced friend.

Maurice was off that day for a doctor appointment, so Barney presided at our morning meeting. When he ended the confab with his traditional invitation for our “comments, questions or concerns,” I piped up:

“Hey, everybody. There’s a tall, skinny, brown haired guy in street clothes who’s been watching our group on and off for the past couple weeks. I know some of you have seen him.” There was a general nodding of heads and a few questioning shrugs among the group. “If he shows up again,” I continued, “my opinion is we should contact Security and let them know. I checked with HR yesterday and nobody there knows who this person is.”

Barney cleared his throat. “Right, okay. Anybody sees this fella, lemme know and I’ll give Security a buzz. Now, if there’s no other comment, we got us thirteen units to work on, so let’s stretch out and get to it.” Barney turned away toward the computer and the rest of us did some stretches and fanned out to our work areas. I glanced around at people’s faces to see if they registered any kind of concern about what I’d shared. They all seemed as nonchalant as Barney did. I sidled up to a Hispanic lady named Bridget who was close friends with Jan.

“Hey, Bridget,” I said, “you’ve seen that guy around here watching us, right?”

“Yeah...tall Anglo dude with the dressy duds? Sure, I seen ‘im.” Bridget started unwinding electrical cords for her tools and setting up for the morning’s assembly work. “Don’t know who he is, though. Figured he was some safety inspector or jazz like that.”

“Did...did Jan say anything to you about him? Show you anything?” I was being careful.

“She just asked me if I knew who he was. Told her I didn’t. What you think she showed me?”

“Uh...nothin’. Just curious, that’s all. The guy’s a puzzle. I’d stay away from him, though.” I hurried over to my work table and started setting up. As I laid out my materials, I looked over toward Jan’s area. She was busy counting parts for the upcoming inventory. When we caught each other’s eye she gave me a wave and mouthed some words: Talk to you later. I nodded back and gave her a thumbs-up.

The units we worked on that morning were longer, wider and more complicated than average. In addition to the extra assembly and materials the team had to deal with, the previous night shift had been short-handed and many of the units down the line were screwed up, so that our people were constantly called on to leave our area and go fix night shift’s mistakes. All of that made it close to impossible to keep any real vigilance in the matter of our weird watchman.

As I said, Barney was easier to get along with...but that’s under normal circumstances, and things were far from normal that day. Sub-assembly people like me and Jan were expected to jump onto the line and do installations while regular folks were fixing stuff down the line. The next couple work stations were hauling ass like a house on fire, and so we were pressured to get our operations completed on schedule, in spite of our handicaps. Barney, not quite used to the pressure from his supervisor, was riding us pretty hard so that everyone’s tempers were on a hair trigger. Mine included.

By the time first break rolled around, the Man Who Didn’t Belong was the furthest thing from my mind. That’s when the fuel tank exploded.

Fifteen minutes earlier, the chassis that rolled into our work area was found to be too long. A couple people from Chassis Prep were called forward to cut the beams down with a plasma torch and re-drill the holes for the bumper brackets. This unforeseen holdup in our schedule was merely annoying to most of us on our team. At least it caused a lull in the frantic pace we’d been maintaining for the past two hours.

For Barney, however, it was like the end of the world. The work station directly ahead of us was empty, waiting impatiently for the next vehicle to move forward. Barney’s supervisor, a no-nonsense ex-Marine, was breathing down his neck, insisting he “keep those holes filled” in the line. The half-dozen of us standing next to the unit watched nervously as Barney, planted like a shuddering steampipe, began twitching, glancing up and down the line, chest puffing out and in, fingers tightening around the heavy wrench he happened to be holding.

The break buzzer pierced the tension-filled tableau. Several things happened at the same time. The guy holding the plasma torch, face shielded by a hood of dark plastic, ignited the torch with a six-inch jet of bluish flame. Barney, turning away from the accursed chassis, threw the wrench away in frustrated disgust, heedless of its trajectory. At least three sets of gloved hands reached out to stop its flight as it impacted with the plastic and rubber release valve atop the chassis’s fuel tank. There were multiple shouts and screams such as “Look out!” and “Turn it off!” and “Hit the deck!”

I’d heard stories of disaster survivors who claimed to have witnessed catastrophes happen in slow motion, but never dreamed I would be one of them.

The fuel in the tank must have been of a fairly high temperature, since it had been sitting in the chassis yard under a scorching summer heat for some time. And the resulting pressure of that tank caused the fuel to spray out in a general cloud of deadly droplets which pretty much engulfed the neighborhood encompassing the seven or eight workers attending to the errant vehicle. The expanding cloud of gasoline met the burning tongue of the torch in a microsecond, and I watched in horror as a roaring balloon of flame blew out from the point of contact and made its way hungrily toward the all-too-flammable human beings surrounding the fuel tank, not to mention the tank itself, which was equivalent to several sticks of TNT.

As I watched death, slowly it seemed, creeping toward me, I felt an inexplicable sense of calm. It was as if I had been sleeping all this time, and just now came to the understanding that I’d been dreaming. But just as suddenly as I thought that, reality returned, for there He was.

Time had slowed to a virtual dead stop. The panting breaths I was inhaling were hot and stifling. In that, blazing, frozen world, I found myself--only myself, it seemed--able to maneuver. So, turning my head away from the flaming horror facing me, I faced the Man Who Didn’t Belong.

“What’s happening?” I asked in a ragged whisper. He was as expressionless and relaxed as he’d appeared in Jan’s video. I saw now that his face was youthful and unlined, save for a tiny mole in the shadow of his full lips. His gaze was upon the accident scene, his hands held up like they’d been in the video, moving almost imperceptibly as against a transparent window.

“Who are you? What is happening?” I repeated insistently, not sure he could even hear me.

“My name is Signal.” The Man’s words were clear and evenly spaced, with no emotion and no inflection. His eyes shifted to meet mine and I saw a clear, liquid manner of kindness in their blue-gray depths, although he never exactly smiled. “And you can see for yourself what is happening.”

“So...you knew that this was going to happen? You were watching us all this time, preparing for this moment? For this disaster?” His sight shifted back, back to the fiery tableau as he nodded.

“How can you...?” I faltered, finding no adequate way to describe his actions.

“I am here to be a Sign for you,” He told me. There was gentle authority in his voice. “But I cannot change what is about to happen. I await your choice, as the Most Pleasing.”

I looked away from Him...from Signal...and digested this for several static seconds. With death teetering on the brink of arrival, I felt as if I had all the time in the world. “What did you call me?” I asked at length. “The Most Pleasing? You mean the most pleasing person in my group, is that it?” Signal nodded, his eyes unmoving, his hands describing little circles in the air.

Then, in answer to my further questions--questions I had no words to express, Signal began to chant in a measured, long-rehearsed rhythm:

You send up your thoughts to the sky,
You hold heaven’s gifts with two hands,
You stretch out your good will to others,
You make of the earth treasures fit for glory,
You cherish life as a guardian and a steward,
You honor those to whom honor is due to the full.

“You said ‘I await your choice,’” I said. “What choice am I being given?”

“To save lives,” Signal replied. “But because you are not perfect, only three may be saved. You have often wondered why some are spared in a catastrophe when others are not. This is the answer. Those who are pleasing are given the power to choose--entrusted with divine mercy. But only those perfectly pleasing may choose to save everyone. Which three will survive?”

Several months later, Jan Masterson, Bridgett Reyes and Kenny Kwon sat at the break table of Gladiator Motors, waiting for the starting buzzer to sound.

For the last month, they’d agreed to read Paul Peterson’s mysterious note that he’d left on Jan’s work table the day the explosion took his life--and re-read the note every morning before they began the work day.

“Dear Jan, Bridgett and Kenny,

You all deserve to know who the strange man was who didn’t belong, the one we all wondered about before the August 4 explosion took place.

All I am allowed to tell you is this: You three were given a precious gift, a gift of life, a gift of survival, thanks to that unknown visitor. And as far as I know, you are always being watched, observed, evaluated by powers and authorities far beyond the bounds of our world.

Why was I given the privilege, the responsibility, of singling the three of you out, that you and only you would survive the disaster? The man told me it was because I was “Most Pleasing.”

If had only been MORE pleasing, PERFECTLY pleasing, then, perhaps, everyone could have been saved.

Could such a thing ever happen again? I have no idea.

All I can tell you is, AIM TO PLEASE. STRIVE FOR PERFECTION.

See you all, I hope, on the other side.

Sincerely

Paul Peterson”


MNA
7/4/2017
(3665 words)


Sunday, May 21, 2017

Soul Poet

(a short story)

by Mark Aikins

The famous poet lived three doors down from me long as I can remember. Gentle, meek, unassuming, smiling at life, Kaspar Salvador seemed born to capture souls with his pen.

The processes of his art--his genius--were little understood, I readily admit. But now, on the day of his burial, I take the time from some perhaps “more pressing” matters, to peruse my personal collection of his works.

Those elements of his style: his rhythms and rhymes, his bursts of sunlight and port holes into darkness, his bouts of melodrama and sprinklings of self-doubt--all the patches making up the quilt of his quality...what moderns would call Kaspar Salvador’s “voice,” have become the stuff of legend. The subject choice of his writing always focused all-but-exclusively on what he called “personal portraits” of people in his life. And, most remarkably--most oddly, in fact--each of those portraits, every solitary poem, was about someone he had outlived.

I ponder that mystery as I leaf through the booklets, the pamphlets, the clippings and the scraps of verse I have copied over the years as I’ve followed Salvador’s rise to world renown.

Here is a little piece about Charlie Gates, one of our mutual boyhood friends. Kaspar composed this at the age of seven and it was printed in the local paper at the time Charlie died of double pneumonia. The poem compares Charlie Gates to a leopard and an eagle and an iguana in various clever and surprising ways. It would still bring a smile to the face of the most jaded critic, but to my heart and mind, Charlie’s little soul was so carefully and lovingly packaged in that seven-lined masterpiece, I could even now imagine it breathing life back into his entombed remains.

Gertrude Castle was another early subject of his: a young, pretty sixth grade teacher Kaspar got to know far more intimately than others in her class. I recall the merciless teasing he got as the “teacher’s pet” and the “favor-hound” from his peers. He gave me a copy of her poem the year she left our school to get married. Ten years later he had it published, after her death in child birth. The editor of the magazine called it “extraordinary in its subtle audacity and charm.” I read it now with the scent of lavender and chalk dust in my mind, along with the clicking and swishing of Miss Castle’s willowy frame.

Kaspar had what must be described as a fascination for people, as if he were exploring, interpreting and enjoying them as both an observer and a participant in human life. This fascination extended well beyond those generally deemed “likeable.” I and others often warned him of the social and moral risks of pursuing certain ill-advised friendships. But, like Will Rogers, Kaspar seemed to “never meet a man (or woman) he didn’t like,” or, at least, seek to befriend.

“Stick” McNaughton is a case in point. Born Herman McNaughton, Jr., son of a local clergyman, “Stick” earned his nickname by growing unusually tall in grade school, and by wielding a heavy oak baton he kept cleverly concealed in his overalls. Classmates who made offhand remarks about his height, his name, or his boorish manner, would sooner or later feel his disfavor in the form of blows that raised painful and colorful welts while leaving no shattered bones behind. No amount of student, parental, or scholarly outcry could convince Reverend McNaughton that his son required correction.

By the time Stick finished school, the lad was a lost cause. Rumor had it that several teachers had offered him passing grades solely under threat of bodily harm, had they not complied with his demands. No one was much surprised when Stick shamed his family by opening a bookstore in town specializing in vile and pornographic materials. To all appearances, he reveled in his status as the most detested of men.

When Kaspar Salvador had the gall to invite Herman McNaughton, Jr. to a dinner party at a posh restaurant in a neighboring town, the other invitees--all prominent business owners--quietly declined to come. Herman haughtily arrived at the restaurant, ready to make a mockery of the occasion. But when he saw the meek little poet alone in the dining room, and himself the only guest, his heart was oddly broken. He and Kaspar ate and drank together, and talked far into the night.

The poem memorializing Stick McNaughton is one of Salvador’s most heart-rending and enigmatic works, plumbing the depths of the man’s spirit and flesh. Although the fire that claimed McNaughton’s life two years later was clearly accidental, it is highly ironic that the insurance settlement issuing from the disaster at Stick’s bookstore named his father’s church as the sole beneficiary.

Perhaps you are wondering about my own poetic portrait by this lover of people? As the world’s foremost authority on the life and work of Kaspar Salvador...as one who lived just down the lane from this genius and whose shadow daily crossed his path, is there, for me, a legacy to be treasured after he returns to dust and ashes?

This very question pricks my curiosity as I now close my desk and make my way past the old meetinghouse on this bright afternoon in May. A hand-lettered placard is tacked to the meeting-house door. It is an invitation from Salvador’s next of kin to enter the church hall and view some memorabilia of the dearly departed, including many yet-to-be-published materials of his. My interest is indeed piqued, and, it still lacking half and hour until the burial, I open the door and step in.

There is the familiar face, sporting the dark reddish mutton-chop sideburns and the fussily trimmed mustache. Depicted alongside various local and regional dignitaries, as well as notables such as Hemingway, Frost and Chesterton. And here are posted the poems that were gleaned fresh from his writer’s folio--each one a captured soul whose life had gone on ahead either to glory or to perdition...

...Jack Semple...Parker Jameson...Lois Robinson...Jeanette Baker...Mordecai Finch...Wanda Clay...but, wait! Those last three...they are still living, are they not? Three treasured souls that outlived the Master! But what of myself?

Alas, it is not to be. No, the postings have come to an end. The folio is empty and the inkwell is dry. I think of his long, fruitful, singular life--and of my own. I lived my life in such proximity to this man, this lover of souls, this ennobler of men. But never did I venture to know him...or, rather, to be known by him. By name, perhaps. By repute, certainly. By historical datum, profusely. But the doors between us, ever unlocked and unbarred and beckoning...those doors were never opened!

And here, by the graveside, in the hushed crowd of mourners and admirers, I stand with those bereft of Kaspar Salvador’s voice and perceptive pen, hearing only the haunting echo of another Lover of Souls: “I never knew you.”

Still, if Kaspar’s poems are to be believed, there are other lives, other worlds, other realities to be discovered beyond this one. Someday, somehow, in one of those faraway places, perhaps Salvador will make a poem out of me?

MNA
5/21/2017

(1250 words)